Song of a Springtime Evening

by | Mar 1, 2013 | Outdoors

When the redbuds start blushing, I start listening for the return of an old friend. This friend is a springtime singer and he sings a melancholy serenade to the springtime night. He’s called a chuck-wills-widow.
Many of you may know the chuck as a whip-poor-will. I’ve lumped him with his cousin in a generic name too, just like when I was a kid and we called all the different soda pops “coke.”
While very similar, they are separate species. Their physical appearances are nearly identical; it’s their songs that set them apart.
The chuck has a distinctly slower cadence and four syllables in his mournful song while the whip-poor-will has three and offers a snappier tempo. The best analogy is that the chuck sings a waltz and the whip-poor-will warbles a polka. Both songs are sweet to the ear, but the chuck’s call is the essence of a springtime evening.
When I was a boy, Dad told me that the chucks were singing “chip-butter-in the white oaks.” I guess some of those syllables were southern slurred by the chuck. It was one of many rural translations for wild speak Dad gave me. I had no idea what chip butter was or why it would be in the white oaks; still don’t. Dad didn’t have an explanation either, but he was right. It sure sounds like chip butter in the white oaks to me, though, my ears might be a little biased.

Chucks are very vocal. I don’t know what decibel level they sing at, but it’s loud.
Catching sight of one is another matter. On the ground, they blend in perfectly with the leaf litter and I’ve probably walked right by scads of them with not a clue they were there.
If you can spot a chuck, it’s fairly easy to get close. They don’t seem particularly concerned with your presence, trusting their cryptic camouflage and instinctively knowing it’s best not to move unless they absolutely must.
Like every other critter I encountered as a boy, I tried to catch the first chuck I saw. I could get almost within striking distance and then it would take wing only to land a few yards away. I would start another stalk and it would end with the same results. This went on until darkness finally made it impossible to see the bird. Only then did I realize how deep into the woods I’d gone and nothing but the glow of a porch light at Granny’s house kept me from full-blown panic.
Chucks have small feet. I’ve never seen them actually walk, but I have seen them scoot around on the ground. The bird also has a small beak, which is in total contradiction to its enormous mouth. The mouth is what gave the nightjar family of birds, to which the chuck belongs, its nickname of “goatsucker”. In the old days, folks thought the huge mouth enabled the birds to feed on goat’s milk directly from the goat’s udder. Of course, we now know differently. The chuck uses that big mouth to scoop insects and the occasional small bird or bat on the wing as it sweeps over pastures and through the understory of the forest.
They have a wispy flight as they flitter through the woodlands. It’s quite a contrast to the strong wing beats of their cousin, the nighthawk, which spends more time in open air above the forest canopy.
The biology and physiology of the bird is interesting, but the mystique they carry is what makes the chuck one of my favorites. Hearing them on a cool April sundown, or as I wait for sunrise on an Ozark ridge, always brings a smile.
The lonesome call of “chuck-wills-widow,” or “chip-butter-in the white oaks” if you will, sang me to sleep on countless nights as I grew up. When I hear them now, I’m transported back to a simpler time. The years melt away and I’m still just a boy, peering through the screened window at my grandparent’s house, watching a silver slice of moon peek over the hill. And, somewhere among the hickories and dogwoods, a chuck-wills-widow sings. It’s a woodland lullaby that gives seasoning to a peaceful spring evening.

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