Williams column: The call of the whippoorwill

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 30, 2012

By Mack Williams
For the Salisbury Post
The whippoorwill is a nocturnal bird found more in country settings than in urban. Where we lived, a few miles from Salisbury out on the Old Concord Road, qualified our neighborhood as country. Late, on a more-than-half-century-ago night, when all of the other birds were asleep, my mother pointed out to my ears the sound of a solitary whippoorwill, which seemed to come from somewhere in the woods behind our backyard.
She had called me over to a darkened window at the rear of the house and asked me to patiently listen. The window was darkened, first of all, from the night, and secondly, because she had switched off the light within the room. She had lived through World War II and experienced blackouts, even in the U.S., but her action of switching off the light wasn’t intended to keep harm away, but meant instead as an invitation for the little bird to sing its night song.
My mother stressed the importance of keeping silent while waiting to hear something which was at the extreme edge of our backyard, and sometimes farther. After a few moments of stillness on the part of my mouth, I would hear the bird, then silence, then the bird again. The sound arrived at regular intervals, and although I could estimate when it would return, the recurrence seemed to always startle me a bit.
The wonder of the bird’s song seemed fresh, despite repetition. Sometimes, the sound would fade to almost inaudibility (like the decrescendo and pianissimo markings on a piece of printed sheet music) depending on the varying distances of the little bird’s forest night flyings. At other times, the sound would originate from different directions in the forest, but never arriving antiphonally, since it was a solitary bird. Its darting here and there in the night was in seeming imitation of the “scurrying about” which we do during the course of our daylit lives, but it was always within hearing, only silenced by dawn.
The sound seemed mysterious, lonely and treble, like the equally mysterious, but baritonal sound of the mourning dove, although both the male and female of that species mate for life, sharing their “mournfulness” until death. Even at the least volume of its hearing, the song seemed like something much too strange and exotic to be coming from the rural Piedmont of North Carolina.
Since it was a warm summer night, the window’s glass had already been raised, not for the specific purpose of hearing the bird’s call, but instead to enable the night breezes to work their way throughout the house. This was an earlier time, when the air within a home was conditioned by the air without with the aid of chilling gases within coiled tubes. The only thing which separated us from the bird was distance and the window screen. The screen was porous enough to accept the sound of the bird’s call, but not so porous as to be receptive to the mosquitoes of a warm night.
At the point of dawn, the whippoorwill chose to sleep, at about the time that we chose to wake, following our hours of sleep after listening at that window.
I wonder just how many successive generations of whippoorwills have come and gone, making that same sound, in that same spot just off of the Old Concord Road since that whippoorwill announced its presence to my mother and me on that very late, late 1950s evening. I imagine that even despite some of their partial habitat destruction, the number of whippoorwills which have sounded there over the years have perhaps totaled to a few multiples of a dozen by now; however, in the case of the long-ago hearing of that single whippoorwill song through that darkened window screen on that particular summer night, the number who heard will forever, never equal more than two.