Spooky noises in the night
When we first moved here above Sulfur Creek we lived in a tent camper we had borrowed from my sister-in-law. We only had three of the crew then. The tent camper was great for keeping out mosquitoes and the rain, but the sounds of the night were another thing indeed. We had been living in a trailer in Oak Hill with an air conditioner and thick insulation. (A good trailer will have good insulation because they have to be parked so close together that noise is a problem.)
The crew was not used to the noises of a summer night. At first it was easy to fall asleep. We were putting up walls and doing heavy labor all day so coyotes could have sung outside the tent and we would have slept through it. The crew had not adjusted to all that outside air yet and sleep came easily. After we had been out here for a week or two, we began to have a problem with the crew and the night birds. They were very frightened of the deep three note call that began about an hour after sunset and continued until about midnight. The owls didn’t bother them. Even the screech owl was not as scary as the trill of the other bird.
After talking to a few neighbors, I dug out my Peterson Guide to the Birds of Texas and discovered that we were hearing the chuck will’s widow. Some folks call it the whippoorwill but according to the bird book the whippoorwill lives in the west Texas hills and the larger chuck-will’s-widow lives in this area. The birds are members of a family that has the unlikely name of `goatsucker’. In folk legend they were accused of milking goats during the night. Their mouths open to a very large spread to catch insects as they are flying and some superstitious people thought they were able to milk the goats. Also in the family are nighthawks and the small poor will. These birds are named by their calls. The whippoorwill has a three syllable call with an down/up/down pattern. The chuck-will’s-widow has a four syllable call with a short almost inaudible first note, a trill at wills and a two note up/down ending. The poor will can sometimes be heard here as he calls his two note, up/down pattern. He is the smallest of the goatsuckers. The other members of the family do not have as distinctive of call, but the nighthawks can be recognized at dusk by the flash of white on their wing.
All of these birds are very important as they keep down mosquitoes and moths that fly at night. You can often see the nighthawks around lights in parking lots eating bugs with the bats . We finally settled the crew down by telling them that the birds were calling “Go to sleep crew. Go to sleep crew.”
It worked when they were little. As they have grown older, the song of the chuck will’s widow has become a harbinger of summer and the end of school. There are other harbingers of summer around, but that’s another story.