Milk Thieves and Harbingers of Doom? - a Short History of Nightjar Folklore
Years back, not long after hearing an Eastern Whip-poor-will for the first time, I stumbled upon a perplexing term. Seeking to learn more about this mysterious, night-singing bird, I returned home to thumb through my field guides. Within those pages, I remember reading something to the effect of the following: "The secretive Whip-poor-will is a cryptic species of Goatsucker more often heard than seen...". Goatsucker? Curious. The deeper I delved and more species accounts I read, the more puzzled I became. While more recent works referred to whip-poor-wills as "nightjars", older texts consistently described them as "goatsuckers". Since that first evening of study, I have devoted a lot of time studying the ecology and natural history of whip-poor-wills and their fellow nightjars. In the interests of understanding the cultural significance of nightjars, I've also spent a considerable bit of time exploring the folklore and mythology these fascinating birds have generated. In this article, I've collected and detailed some of the nightjar superstitions too strange not to share. Furthermore, I've attempted to use what I've learned about nightjars to explore likely explanations for some of these outlandish beliefs.
The term in more common usage today - nightjar - is fairly justifiable and easy to understand when you hear the explanation. The first bird to be called a "nightjar" was the European Nightjar (Caprimulgus europaeus) which was so named in the 17th-century because it was active at night and made a jarring noise (night + jar = nightjar). 18th- and 19th-century European poets, referred to this same bird as "dew-hawk" and "lich fowle". The former was likely inspired by the fact that these birds actively forage by night while the dew forms. The latter roughly translates to "corpse bird" and we will touch more on this later in the article. Around this same time, these birds were commonly referred to as "nightchurrs" (active at night + made a "churring" noise), "fern owls" (they appeared owl-like + roosted/nested on the ground among the ferns), and... "goat-chaffers". Most of those names are related to the bird's natural history and habits. So then what's with this association between these cryptic, nocturnal birds and goats, you might ask? Well, for centuries, people around the world believed that nightjars subsisted, at least in part, on a diet of goat's milk... which they were thought to drink directly from a nanny goat's udders. Furthermore, the folklore of the time held that any goats that fell victim to a goatsucker would then stop producing milk and might also go blind. The effects of this superstition are so enduring that, to this day, the scientific order to which whip-poor-wills, nighthawks, and all other nightjars belong is Caprimulgiformes, which roughly translates from Latin to "goat-milker".
So when, where, and why did this goat-sucker myth begin? Well, as is often the case with folklore, finding the very root origin can be tricky. Fortunately, there are a few early references to "goatsuckers" that can help us trace this belief surprisingly far back. More than 2000-years ago, to the 4th-century B.C., when famed Greek philosopher, Aristotle, made reference to these birds and their alleged harmful impact on goats. Pliny the Elder, a Roman naturalist and father of the modern encyclopedia, would repeat these disparaging remarks a handful of centuries later in his great work, Naturalis Historiae. History is not without its nightjar sympathists, however. In the early 19th-century, naturalist and conservationist, Charles Waterton, was so moved by this wanton slandering of these birds that he would pen the following heartfelt vindication of nightjars: "The harmless, unoffending Goatsucker, from the time of Aristotle down to the present day, has been in disgrace with man. Father has handed down to son, and author to author, that this nocturnal thief subsists by milking the flocks. Poor injured little bird of night, how sadly hast thou suffered, and how foul a stain has inattention to facts put upon thy character! Thou hast never robbed man of any part of his property nor deprives the kid a drop of milk.", (Waterton, 1825). Hear, hear, Charles!
Although the idea that nightjars would drink the milk from goats is, to surely all of us, a silly notion, we can speculate about how such a belief would come about. As birds that were active almost exclusively at night, nightjars were seldom seen. They were regularly heard, however, which must have generated interest and speculation. Their insectivorous nature (nearly all nightjars subsist primarily on insects) meant these birds likely would have been drawn into close proximity to domesticated animals and the insects associated with them, and therefore might have been frequently observed by those people keeping watch over livestock. Anyone who captured or killed a nightjar in their animal pen would discover that this cryptic, little bird is equipped with a small bill and a very large mouth. That mouth might have appeared perfectly suitable for drinking milk from a goat's udders while their insubstantial-looking bills must have seemed useless for eating much of anything else. Today, we know that their large mouths are actually perfectly suited for capturing large insects, like moths and beetles, in flight on dark nights. Who needs a big, clunky bill when you have a cavernously large mouth and can just swallow your food whole?
Earlier in this article, I made mention that the name "lich fowle" (or "corpse bird") was one of the many names historically used to describe nightjars. That's a rather more sinister title than "goat-sucker" to be sure! While goats come up a lot in nightjar folklore, so too do connections with divination and suggestions that these birds are in some way connected to death. In Germanic folklore, for instance, Odin, is said to be accompanied by a "night-raven" during the Wild Hunt - a ghostly procession of fallen warriors that would travel the night sky in winter and would abduct unfortunate witnesses to carry off to the underworld. Modern scholars have suggested that this avian companion may have been inspired by the European Nightjar. Supporting this theory, the Norwegian word for nightjar is nattravn, or night-raven. English folklore connects nightjars to another, equally eerie tale. These inhabitants of the British Isles believed that nightjars were manifestations of the souls of unbaptised children, doomed to wander the wild night sky. Such foreboding associations were not limited to the Old World and, indeed, found their way to the Americas.
When it comes to superstitions in the New World, our own Eastern Whip-poor-will (Antrostomus vociferous) was not without its own macabre folktales and associations. In 1820, Washington Irving described this bird among the cast of woodland creatures terrorizing Ichabod Crane as he rode through the wooded valley haunted by the ghostly Headless Horsemen in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Famed New England poet, Robert Frost, included the whip-poor-will as one of the denizens of the Ghost House in his hauntingly beautiful 1915 poem by the same name. A pervasive bit of early New England folklore held the whip-poor-wills had an uncanny talent for predicting ill-fortunes and perhaps even death. To hear a whip-poor-will singing on the doorstep was supposed to indicate a death in the home was eminent. Others believed that these birds would lay in wait to make off with the souls of the dying. This belief was popularized in the early 20th-century by science-fiction author, H.P. Lovecraft, in The Dunwich Horror. Lovecraft is known to have gathered the local legends and superstitions of indigenous peoples and early Americans as inspirations for his "weird tales", many of which took place in New England. Although they have surely inspired some fun and spooky stories, this dark association was not particularly beneficial to the whip-poor-will's reputation. In many of my conversations with elders about their past experiences with these birds, I have heard a handful of personal accounts in which whip-poor-wills were killed outright for fear of the ominous tidings they were thought to carry. This is a distressing thought, indeed, especially in light of the widespread decline of the Eastern Whip-poor-will in North America. Fortunately, these erroneous beliefs have seemingly faded deep enough into history that fear of the whip-poor-will's song has given way to nostalgic remembrances and captivated fascinations.
So why the association between nightjars and death? The answer is a simple one really and one repeated all throughout history: a fear of the unknown. Like so many other beneficial, nocturnal animals including bats, owls, and many amphibians, nightjars evaded direct observation and existed only in the dark of night. This elusiveness, paired with their mysterious nighttime vocalizations, led many imaginations to run rampant and folklore to develop in an attempt to offer explanation. These birds were somehow able to operate in near or total darkness. How they were able to do this was beyond the knowledge of early Europeans and Americans, many of whom were fearful of nighttime and darkness in general. In our pursuits to better understand our natural world, we have uncovered that these birds navigate the night, not by any dark agency, but through a suite of adaptations that make them perfectly suited to exploit the night and all it has to offer. Thanks to things like very high numbers of rod cells in their large eyes, large mouths, loud vocalizations, nighttime courtship displays, and cryptic plumage, nightjars enjoy many special advantages. Such benefits include increased access to/less competition for insect prey, a greater likelihood of their songs being heard by potential mates (since few other birds sing at night), and an ability disappear into the landscape by day to avoid predators. There are nearly 100 known species of nightjars dispersed across six of the Earth's seven continents. Sadly, there are no Antarctic nightjars to keep the penguins company on those long Antarctic nights. That such a cryptic and elusive order of birds is so widespread and numerous is a testament to the effectiveness of their specialized adaptations.
While nightjars have suffered a bad rap throughout history, they have also been venerated at times for the enjoyment and sense of place their songs have brought to those lucky enough to hear them. The song of the whip-poor-will has inspired innumerable musicians, poets, and authors to immortalize this spirited and often tireless songster of eastern North America into their works. John James Audubon wrote very fondly of Eastern Whip-poor-will in his legendary work, Birds of America, and found more cheer and excitement in their songs than foreboding: "Immediately after the arrival of these birds, their notes are heard in the dusk and through the evening, in every part of the thickets, and along the skirts of the woods... Only think, kind reader, how grateful to me must have been the cheering voice of this my only companion, when, fatigued and hungry, after a day of unremitted toil, I have planted my camp in the wilderness, as the darkness of night put a stop to my labours! Hundreds are often heard at the same time in different parts of the woods, each trying to out-do the others; and when you are told that the notes of this bird may be heard at the distance of several hundred yards, you may form an idea of the pleasure which every lover of nature must feel during the time when this chorus is continued. Description is incapable of conveying to your mind any accurate idea of the notes of this bird, much less of the feelings which they excite" (Audubon, 1838).
Sadly, since Audubon's day, hearing "hundreds" of chorusing whip-poor-will has become a very rare event indeed, as the species has declined greatly in recent decades all across their breeding range. Threats like habitat destruction, forest maturation, introduced predators, and declining insect populations have and continue to put these birds at risk. Climate change is expected to bring further stress to these birds by posing direct threats to nests/nestlings while greatly impacting their breeding and wintering ranges. There are still opportunities to hear these mysterious and enchanting songs throughout New England, however, and if you would like to listen for the nighttime songs of whip-poor-wills while contributing to science that will inform their conservation, please consider taking part in the Maine Nightjar Monitoring Project as a project volunteer. Our volunteers empower us to document the status and distribution of Maine's nightjars. The data our monitors collect is essential as we work to ensure these birds continue to sing through moonlit nights and inspire the curiosities and imaginations of future generations... of course, without detriment to any goats.