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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


March 9 , 2002 - Issue 56


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Why the Nighthawk's Wings are Beautiful


Blackfeet Legend


feather"Old-man was travelling one day in the springtime; but the weather was fine for that time of year. He stopped often and spoke to the bird-people and to the animal-people, for he was in good humor that day. He talked pleasantly with the trees, and his heart grew tender. That is, he had good thoughts; and of course they made him happy. Finally he felt tired and sat down to rest on a big, round stone -- the kind of stone our white friend there calls a boulder. Here he rested for a while, but the stone was cold, and he felt it through his robe; so he said:

"'Stone, you seem cold to-day. You may have my robe. I have hundreds of robes in my camp, and I don't need this one at all.' That was a lie he told about having so many robes. All he had was the one he wore.

"He spread his robe over the stone, and then started down the hill, naked, for it was really a fine day. But storms hide in the mountains, and are never far away when it is springtime. Soon it began to snow -- then the wind blew from the north with a good strength behind it. Old-man said:

Jack Frost"'Well, I guess I do need that robe myself, after all. That stone never did anything for me anyhow. Nobody is ever good to a stone. I'll just go back and get my robe.'

"Back he went and found the stone. Then he pulled the robe away, and wrapped it about himself. Ho! but that made the stone angry -- Ho! Old-man started to run down the hill, and the stone ran after him. Ho! it was a funny race they made, over the grass, over smaller stones, and over logs that lay in the way, but Old-man managed to keep ahead until he stubbed his toe on a big sage-brush, and fell -- swow!

"'Now I have you!' cried the stone -- 'now I'll kill you, too! Now I will teach you to give presents and then take them away,' and the stone rolled right on top of Old-man, and sat on his back.

"It was a big stone, you see, and Old-man couldn't move it at all. He tried to throw off the stone but failed. He squirmed and twisted -- no use -- the stone held him fast. He called the stone some names that are not good; but that never helps any. At last he began to call:

Flying Bird"'Help! -- Help! -- Help!' but nobody heard him except the Night-hawk, and he told the Old-man that he would help him all he could; so he flew away up in the air -- so far that he looked like a black speck. Then he came down straight and struck that rock an awful blow -- 'swow!' -- and broke it in two pieces. Indeed he did. The blow was so great that it spoiled the Night-hawk's bill, forever -- made it queer in shape, and jammed his head, so that it is queer, too. But he broke the rock, and Old-man stood upon his feet.

"'Thank you, Brother Night-hawk, ' said Old-man, 'now I will do something for you. I am going to make you different from other birds -- make you so people will always notice you.'

feather"You know that when you break a rock the powdered stone is white, like snow; and there is always some of the white powder whenever you break a rock, by pounding it. Well, Old-man took some of the fine powdered stone and shook it on the Night-hawk's wings in spots and stripes -- made the great white stripes you have seen on his wings, and told him that no other bird could have such marks on his clothes.

"All the Night-hawk's children dress the same way now; and they always will as long as there are Night-hawks. Of course their clothes make them proud; and that is why they keep at flying over people's heads -- soaring and dipping and turning all the time, to show off their pretty wings.

Listen to the Night-Hawk


Print Out Your Own Bird Word Find Puzzle
Bird Word Find

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Common Nighthawk (Chordeiles minor)

Perching NighthawkThe genus name is a combination of two Greek words, choros (a circular dance) and deile (evening). This probably refers to the flights a Nighthawk makes when trying to catch insects in the evening. The species name is Latin meaning "smaller," because when this species was named it was being compared to the Nightjar found in Europe.

Size: 24 cm (9.5 in) in length. Color: Mottled gray-brown overall; white bar on wing near the end of the flight feathers; white throat; barring on chest and belly. Other things to look for: Wings are long, thin, and pointed. The call of this species is a nasal peent.

The breeding season begins in mid-April, peaks later that month through mid-June, and extends into mid-July. Nesting habitat is primarily roof-tops for inland birds and flat coastal areas for coastal birds. No nest is built. The female lays 1-3 (usually 2) eggs that she incubates for approximately 19 days. The young are semi-precocial and start to fly around 23 days after hatching. They remain dependent on adults until they are about a month old. During that time they are fed by both the male and female, but only the female broods them.

Common NighthawkThe Common Nighthawk has adapted to city life. The introduction of flat-topped gravel roofs created a new nesting habitat for this species, and the lighting systems around buildings attract many insects. Its diet consists of insects, which it captures with its bill while in flight. This species is nocturnal, spending much of its time hunting and singing in the late evenings around dusk.

This species is common throughout the United States during the breeding season. Winters are spent in South America. During the breeding season, it is common throughout the Southeast, except in the mountainous regions.

This species is common in appropriate habitat and is not listed as requiring any special conservation attention in any portion of its southeastern range.

In the Southeast, two other common species that may look similar are the Chuck-will's-widow and the Whip-poor-will. Both the Chuck-will's-widow and the Whip-poor-will are also nocturnal, with most of their activities occurring at dusk and dawn. They both lack the bold white wing bars of the Common Nighthawk and have broad rounded tails and wings. The songs of all three species also are distinctively different from one another.

To listen to the call of the Nighthawk, click here.

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