Friday, May 7, 2010

Folklife Fridays: Whippoorwills

Have you ever seen one?

Most Southerners born before air-conditioning shut off the world fell asleep to their plaintive cries.

They nest on the ground, sleeping during the day. From dusk to dawn, they use their superior vision to find and devour flying insects, repeating their name between bites.

They are the stuff of folklore. American Indian legend says their song was a death omen. Their habit of flying near cows and goats in search of insects caused them to be called "milk suckers".

My daddy would sit on the porch in the early spring and listen for the first whippoorwill's call. He said that it was safe to plant cotton without fear of frost killing the seedlings after the whippoorwills started singing. Because their breeding habits correspond with certain phases of the moon, he was most likely correct.

Somehow, the call makes us lonely, and has become a symbol for melancholy. Hank Williams mentioned the whippoorwill in his song, "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." Dolly Parton, Randy Travis, and others frequently use the emotion-evoking whippoorwill in their songs.

Sadly, they are not as common as they once were, due to loss of habitat and insecticides.

I have never seen one except in photos, but they are as much as part of my youth as blackberries and jumping-jacks.

I listen for them now, standing on the deck, trying to block the noise pollution of sirens and traffic and planes. On those nights when I am blessed and able to separate what is made by man and what is made by God, I hear them.

Those nights are precious.