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The goatsuckers are calling
As we ease into summer, if you listen closely during dusk and early nighttime hours, you may hear the distinctive sounds of goatsuckers.
Yes, you read that correctly: goatsuckers. Despite the unusual name, these are not fictional creatures.
Also called nightjars, goatsuckers are in a group of birds belonging to the family Caprimulgidae. These birds are nocturnal insect catchers with small bills, very wide mouths and large, flat heads. They were first called goatsuckers because of the ancient superstition that they used their wide mouths to suck milk from goats. While it is unclear if anyone ever really believed in goat-milking birds, the name stuck.
Mississippi has three species from this family: Eastern Whip-poor-will, Chuck-wills-widow and common nighthawk.
Eastern Whip-poor-wills and Chuck-wills-widows were named for their songs or calls. The Whip-poor-will’s call has three “syllables” that are sung rapidly. The Chuck-wills-widow’s call has four syllables sung with a slight pause between each one. Living in northeast Mississippi, I hear both species calling at night because their ranges overlap in the north half of the state. Residents of south Mississippi will hear only Chuck-wills-widows. Both species are more common in rural areas and prefer open woods and wooded areas along fields.
The common nighthawk differs in appearance from the other two species. It has a more tapered body and rounder head than its cousins. A slightly forked tail; long, pointed wings with white blazes underneath; and a white, V-shaped throat patch are visible when the bird is in flight.
Nighthawks can be seen over neighborhoods and downtown areas, flying in big looping patterns catching insects in the evening sky. They often use flat-topped roofs of buildings in many downtown areas as roosting and nesting sites. Their call is distinctive; it’s best described as a nasally “peent.” Because they resemble large bats darting after insects, folks from my grandparents’ generation sometimes called them Bullbats.
The common nighthawk has a courtship display known as booming. The male dives steeply, creating a distinctive “whooshing” sound at the bottom of the dive as air passes through his wing feathers. The sound resembles cars at a NASCAR race or the quick passing of a large truck. If you are outside in the evening and hear a common nighthawk’s call, keep listening for -- and you will soon hear -- the unique sound of booming.
Whether you call them goatsuckers or nightjars, this is an interesting group of birds. Their songs add to those of crickets, cicadas, frogs, toads and other critters that make up the nighttime symphony of the Mississippi summer. With all that’s going on in today’s world, take some time to relax outdoors in the evening and enjoy these sounds. Goatsuckers especially do not disappoint.
Editor’s Note: Extension Outdoors is a column authored by several different experts in the Mississippi State University Extension Service.