We had a gift waiting for us six months after we built our home. I’m so glad I discovered it serendipitously. To have known about the magnetic call of our back yard whippoorwill before the bird revealed itself would have been less magical and made the first time we heard the sound expected. The way our whippoorwill revealed itself, however, was to become the difference in an evening chorus of tree frogs and lingering day songs from the birds who were almost done for the evening.
When the human brains register a “difference,” the first notion is to test the new feedback out. “Did you hear that?” I asked Mick as we worked in the last hint of light, raking up twigs in our back yard?
“What? No, I didn’t hear anything,” he replied.
I heard it again, ever so slightly more pronounced. “THAT,” I said. “That sound. It’s a bird call I’ve not heard before.”
When rakes stop scratching and attention is completely directed toward the collection of incoming sounds, then the world changes. Here is exactly the sound we heard together after pausing that evening:
And, we are blessed to hear it every Spring around this time. All told, I’ve enjoyed eight years on our back porch listening to the call of the whippoorwill end the day. He comes into auditory range when it reaches the bottom of our hill around the creek. The beautiful sound grows more pronounced as the bird gradually moves along the treeline up the hill, passes across our back yard, and then continues on its path until it is out of range for our ears as it crests the top of the hill.
The process, in some ways, is like a one-hour long doppler effect. Barely there, and heard at different wavelengths than when in immediate proximity, then changing again as it goes away. The sound is beautiful, but the bird is by and large elusive. It stops singing if you approach the area where it rests. After all, WE are not the mate it is looking for.
But when she responds, and they mate somewhere outside the range of our eyes or ears, the result is one or two eggs that will eventually hatch into more birds with hauntingly beautiful voices. The sound is so powerful that some Native American lore states that when people die, the whippoorwill catches the soul as it leaves their body. Mysterious, beautiful, and woven into the mythology of our ancients, I am grateful for this bird. And I’m grateful for the lessons it gives us.
First, there is beauty in patience. To hear only a slice of the bird’s process during Spring evenings is to hear only a moment of nature. But to pause for the length of time that the whippoorwill’s call beckons your auditory nerves into a relaxing meditation is to stop your world for quiet reflection. Reflection that allows your mind to let go of a thought every time the call is made until there are no thoughts left to tangle the moment. Until a serene peace takes over you, the moment and the bird who chanted you into your meditative state.
Second, there is a rhythm and cycle of nature that cannot be denied. The sun comes up and sets. The seasons turn. Babies are born and people die. Birds are compelled to seek their mates, lay eggs and tend to their babies. Millions of rituals prescribed by nature take place every day. They are bigger than us, stronger than the mightiest human will, and will continue for longer than our bodies will survive. The rhythm and cycles that are demonstrated in the approach of the whippoorwill every Spring are ways in which we as humans can take perspective, adjust our spirits, thank God for His perfect design and for the fact that a new day will begin again very soon. That, in spite of our chaotic and human existence, something more powerful than our daily schedules and bigger than our goals is managing this Earth quite nicely.
Finally, that we need connection and can only rest when it is found. The primary purpose of the call on this recording is the invitation for companionship. The instinct and need that living creatures have to wish for another, and the capacity to work on filling that need until the task is complete is, in itself, an amazing mystery. The call of the whippoorwill, although repetitious, is never wearying. Rather, it says to its yet unfound mate, “Here I am. This is what I sound like. This is who we are, this is what we do, and, I’m looking for you.” The call is a beacon to the world sending the message that it is good, natural and useful for togetherness. And that while being alone for a time might work, our very nature is that of connectedness. As humans, we sometimes muddle this need with all sorts of rationalizations about if, when, and why we should be connected to another. But for the whippoorwill, there is no angst. Their vocalizations are a clarion call for the good that relationships with our fellow man can hold.
One night our whippoorwill gave us an extra lesson that was outside of its scope of teaching. About six years ago I was outside on our trampoline with my eldest. Our neighbor had come over and was laying there as we talked about her high school graduation and future plans. We had been hearing the whippoorwill work its way up the hill and commented from time to time about its call. All of the sudden, the bird actually flew to a branch hanging over the trampoline and began calling like crazy, “Whippoor-WILL! Whippor-WILL!”
Its little bird body leaned backward to take a massive bird breath in preparation of every call and when it let go, it looked like a cartoon rooster crowing at the morning sun with all its might. And, it was LOUD! Oh my goodness, we began laughing so hard and could hardly hear each others’ giggles because that little bird was so incredibly powerful. It just looked at us, called at the top of its lungs, and remained there for at least one or two minutes – no fear, no recognition that our peals of laughter were directed toward it…the bird just sat there with absolute resolve. When it was convinced that a mate was not responding, it flew away to a tree about thirty yards away and began again.
I suppose that night also afforded us a lesson that sometimes, things you count on to be constant, can hold unexpected surprises.
My hope for you this Spring is that you get a beautiful surprise by hearing a whippoorwill before they move on and quietly tend to their new babies.