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Natural World: An unexpected encounter

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Yep, it’s a bird — honest! Look at its eyes, it’s an adult common poorwill on the mend at Elise Wolf’s Native Bird Care facility in Sisters.
  • Yep, it’s a bird — honest! Look at its eyes, it’s an adult common poorwill on the mend at Elise Wolf’s Native Bird Care facility in Sisters.

The last thing the people at Lowe's in Bend expected to see last week was a lone common poorwill (a bird very closely related to a nighthawk) standing in the middle of the garden center. You have to admit, that bundle of feathers with red eyes just doesn't fit into a bird category—unless someone knows a little more about birds than "robins eat worms."

A Lowe's employee picked it up, thinking it was a baby owl, but a customer happened to see the bird and knew it for what it is: a common poorwill. She knew if it was being carried around without putting up a struggle something was wrong with it. She also knew who to call for help: Elise Wolf of Native Bird Care in Sisters.

Currently, the poorwill is undergoing an intense bathing regime in an effort to remove some kind of gunk the bird got into while exploring the garden department. The usual method for removing oils is Dawn, a well-known detergent, used by rehabbers the world over. But the stuff on the Lowe's bird is persistent and sticky, so Elise has to work harder in an attempt to remove it.

The bird is also devouring hundreds of mealworms and crickets daily. If you think rehabbing native birds isn't costly, you have another thing coming.

Poorwills are nocturnal and a member of the nightjar family. The term "nightjar" probably makes very little sense to those who know little about birds. Poorwills are medium-sized nocturnal or crepuscular (the latter a time of sparse light between sunset and darkness and darkness and dawn), and they are birds equipped with long wings, short, weak legs, very short bills and a BIG mouth.

In some areas they're called goatsuckers, due to ancient folk tales that claimed they sucked milk from goats. Goatsuckers of the New World (our western species) are called nighthawks, others poorwills, and they nest on the ground.

CAUTION! In this neck of the woods you have to be careful when driving little-used roads at night, as both poorwills and nighthawks stop to rest in the middle of the roads. Both give off a very distinct eye-shine at night, most time manifested by just two tiny red spots in the darkness. If you see that at night in the road, get your foot on the brake; it will probably be a goatsucker.

In my opinion, a female nightjar lays her pebble-like eggs in places where they resemble their environment. She doesn't even build a "nest." Even a baby nightjar looks like a pebble—until it opens its eyes, which look like sparkling red or black jewels.

While employed with Sunriver back in the 70s, I was charged with the responsibility of helping employees and residents better understand the nature of Sunriver. I also had the task of making changes in the locations of roads and parking areas because of a conflict with the master plans designed by Bob Ryston. One day I found a common nighthawk nesting in an area designated to be a parking area and called it to the attention of Len, the construction superintendent.

Seeing the bird had just laid its eggs, we discussed the timing, but Len didn't believe me, as he couldn't see the bird or the eggs. I asked him to follow me as we slowly walked toward it. As it is with most ground-nesters, they wait until the last moment, then fall all over themselves doing the broken wing act to get your attention to move you away from their eggs.

The nighthawk did just that, but not before opening its brilliant black eye to stare at Len and me. "What the..." he snorted when he saw the jewel-like eye, and then actually gasped as the bird left the nest to go into its broken wing act. It was then we saw the eggs, and Len changed his mind. He went back to his crew and told them all about the bird, and even came back later to carefully take a photo of the tiny young running around where there would never be a parking lot. To my knowledge they're still nesting at that location today.

Nightjars have small feet, of little use for walking. To perch on a limb they must do so lengthways—which also makes them look like a stick, and their soft plumage is cryptically colored to resemble bark, leaves and sand and gravel.

Now, here comes the real mystery about nightjars, especially poorwills: they (and hummingbirds) are the only birds known to go into a torpor, defined as a state of decreased physiological activity in an animal, usually caused by reduced body temperature and metabolic rate, very similar to hibernation. While hummingbirds can go into torpor for up to 12 hours, common poorwills can do it all through the winter as in hibernation.

Which opens the door to the possibility that the poorwill now in Elise's care may have flown into Lowe's late last summer and has been there hibernating through winter. Or perhaps a better scenario: it was passing through the night before and thought Lowe's looked like a good motel for a day's rest.

Elise plans to release Sticky as soon as the night-moving moths and insects are abundant, and since poorwills fly very close to the ground and often rest at night in the middle of the road...well, you know.


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