‘Lone on the fir-branch, his rattle-notes unvaried,
Brooding o’er the gloom, spins the brown eve-jar.’ George Meredith
It’s an obvious thing to say, but some aspects of the past are utterly gone. But every now and then we’re lucky enough to get a fleeting, unexpected taste of what the past might have been like, a tiny hint or reminder – what the painter Winifred Nicholson might have called ‘glimpses through’. I had one of those moments yesterday, when I heard a nightjar.
I’d just gone out to shut the henhouse for the night and was watching a bat flicker across the open space between the hedge and wood. Dusk in May is so deliciously fresh – every evening a little longer, a little more promisingly nearly-summer, and here was a nightjar as well – what a bonus. Tantalisingly, I had to wait for quiet stretches between the noise of passing traffic to listen properly to this strange voice from the past, calling from a time when such thimgs were plentiful in the countryside…
The European nightjar (Caprimulgus europaeus) is a nocturnal summer visitor from warmer places. Although on the increase again, they number just over 4600 breeding pairs in the UK.
It isn’t hard to understand why this modest, reclusive, mysterious bird became associated with the uncanny. Its associated myths pre-date Aristotle, who recorded them, and throughout Europe folklore insisted that the nightjar stole milk from goats’ udders – earning it the name Goatsucker, by which it’s known in many places, from Spain to Russia. Other country names in Britain include ‘Flying–toad’, ‘Fern-owl’, ‘Night-hawk’ and ‘Moth-owl’, which seems exactly right, given that it must surely be the nearest thing to a moth one could ever see in bird-form.
Infrequently seen as they sleep during the day (unless you stumble upon a female sitting on her eggs on the ground), but its appearance lends itself easily to legend. The nightjar has wide, black eyes that shine like a cat’s if caught in torchlight. It has camouflaging, mottled brown feathers like lichen, or a reptile. Its pink gape opens very wide for swallowing large moths, craneflies, chafers and dor-beetles, and the beak is surrounded by bristles, presumably to more efficiently hoover up supper on the wing.
It looks, in short, like a cross between a cuckoo, a moth and a catfish. It is very agile in flight, and has a peculiar serrated middle claw which it uses for preening.
It is also called ‘Corpse Fowl’ and ‘Puckeridge’ – nightjars were also wrongly accused of pecking the hides of cattle and causing the disease called puckeridge (a condition caused by the warble fly which lays its eggs under the skin’s surface).
Naturalist and curate Gilbert White (1720-93) in his Hampshire parish of Selborne often recorded the presence of nightjars or fern-owls, and noted:
‘The country people have a notion that the fern owl … is very injurious to to weanling calves … [but] the least observation and attention would convince men that these birds neither injure the goatherd nor the grazier, but are perfectly harmless and subsist alone on night insects. … Nor does it anywise appear how they can … inflict any harm among kine, unless they possess the powers of animal magnetism, and can affect them by fluttering over them.’
He says ruefully that:
‘It is the hardest thing in the world to shake off superstitious prejudices: they are sucked in as it were with our mother’s milk … and make the most lasting impressions, become so interwoven into our very constitutions, that the strongest good sense is required to disengage ourselves from them.’
In Yorkshire nightjars were said to be the souls of unbaptised children, condemned to wander the world forever.
Poets love the nightjar, occupying as it does that crepuscular, liminal half-place between day and night where changes happen. Dylan Thomas mentions it in his poem ‘Fern Hill, and Wordsworth describes it like this: ‘The Night-hawk is singing his frog-like tune/ Twirling his watchman’s rattle about.’ (Though he later changed the lines to the rather vaguer: ‘The buzzing Dor-hawk round and round is wheeling.’) Poet and naturalist Charlotte Smith (1749-1806) wrote, ‘While, by the lingering light, I scarcely discern/The shrieking night-jar sail on heavy wing.’ John Clare (1793-1864) mentions it frequently.
The warm undulating churring of its song sounds almost mechanical, like an old Singer sewing machine, or a spinning wheel; or crickets. John Clare described it in a letter as ‘a trembling sort of crooing noise’. The male call is the churring one, at 1,900 notes per minute, which it can sustain for several minutes at a time.
To hear it for yourself, click here to go to a sample recording (Xeno-canto: Sharing Bird Sounds From Around The World).
Listening to the nightjar’s song in the field produces a peculiar sensation – as if the ground itself were vibrating inside your head, almost felt rather than heard, and very hard to pinpoint in terms of location – the nightjar seems to throw its voice like a ventriloquist. If you didn’t know what it was, or if you were fairly steeped in superstition as a way of life, your blood might well momentarily run cold with the eerieness of it. It’s a fabulous, spooky bird. If only there were more. Bring back the nightjar!
Can anyone think of any other wild creature so unfairly maligned?