Tuesday, September 25, 2018

A Silence in the Night

I really believe that the whippoorwill and it’s larger relative, the chuck-will’s-widow, are two birds that are headed for possible extinction or something close to it. I know that to some that sounds pretty extreme but those who live in the country where woodlands are near, know what I am talking about.
       I am getting letters from Wright and Texas counties saying there seems to be none of them to be heard anywhere.  I use to camp on river gravel bars and hear a half dozen of those mesmerizing night birds calling their repetitive song around me, and go to sleep listening to them.

       Now you may float the rivers and camp in a different place every night and be lucky to hear one. Here on Lightnin’ Ridge twenty years ago, you could figure on hearing both birds, and several of them, in the big woods beyond my home and office. This summer as last, there were none. Not one of either.  Without the two, the night-time woods is a place too quiet, empty and dark.

       The reason behind their diminishing numbers is pretty easy to figure. They lay eggs in the leaves in the woods and build no nests. The two species are creatures of flight, and incapable of walking efficiently on weakly muscled legs. They eat nothing on the ground, just insects in the air, when in flight at dusk and dawn.  Because of that you cannot raise them in captivity… they cannot be fed in a confined environment.

       Both hogs and armadillos and all other ground rummaging furbearers, like raccoons, skunks, and possums find and eat the eggs and the young birds. So do crows, and blacksnakes are one of the most formidable of egg eaters.  All of these, every single species mentioned, is now at tremendously high populations everywhere these birds are found.  I know that the birds decline across the Midwest began with the infiltration of non-native armadillos, one of the most horrible creatures ever to move into our region.

       Whippoorwill eggs are too white, and often when you can walk past the bird and not see it because it blends so well into the forest floor, you can spot the eggs many yards away.
One protective gift they are given is the ability to move their eggs, and their fledglings both, by holding them between the their thighs and moving them to another safer place.  Trouble is, there is no safer place now.

     I might be able to blame the increasing loss of whippoorwills on wild hogs, but here on Lightnin’ Ridge where I live, there are no hogs. The armadillo is a scourge, and one I cannot see any hope of eliminating.

         The whippoorwill’s range covers a larger area than the chuck-wills-widow’s range, which makes the latter even more susceptible to this predation, of which feral hogs and armadillos are such a great part.  The larger chuck-wills-widow exists all across the south into eastern Oklahoma and Texas but not very far to the north, not found north of Missouri.         Whipporwills thrive into the southern part of Canada, but not in the Deep South or Texas, nor much farther to the west than eastern Kansas or eastern Oklahoma.

       Biologists in state wildlife departments are slow to recognize what is happening, but we are going to have to change some attitudes in a hurry if we are going to save the whippoorwill and other birds which nest on the ground.
       Modern day nature lovers, bird watchers and ornithologists need to get involved now, and we have to abandon the old idea that we should let nature take it’s course.  Nature has been badly overbalanced because of the over population of man. THERE NO LONGER IS A ‘NATURES COURSE’.

       We cannot eliminate or destroy the raccoon nor the possum or skunk no matter what we do.  When the price of furs was high in the 1920’s through the 1950’s we saw a tremendous pressure on those three species, and they were at low numbers for sure, for many years, but nowhere near extinction.  If those of us who live in the country begin to eliminate them as much as we can, we can make a significant impact on their numbers, and save many many nests.
       I have declared war on blacksnakes, feral cats and armadillos on my own land.  And I intend to reduce populations of raccoons and possums and skunks as well.  Control of these ever-increasing vermin is best effected by learning how to set small deadfalls.
       While deadfalls are against game and fish commission regulations, they are going to have to become a tool we use in protecting ground nesting birds like the whippoorwill, quail, woodcock and even wild turkey. There is some kind of game department regulation against almost anything you do now, killing a copperhead, cottonmouth or woodrat is illegal in Missouri.

       Right now there is a decline in eastern wild turkey populations in much of the Midwest, worse than I have seen since I was young. Again, they have never faced such a problem with the increasing number of egg eaters. I will address that in another column.
       I am urging everyone who spends time in the woods, who owns forested land or wants to see quail eggs and whippoorwill eggs survive, to declare war on these species I have mentioned.  I will eliminate all blacksnakes and armadillos on my place especially, and make it unattractive for crows and raccoons as well.  If you have noticed a decline in whippoorwill numbers in woodlands around you, I suggest you give thought to doing the same.

Outdoors note… A quail-hunting friend of mine says he finds several coveys, along a bottomland where a couple of farmer’s families trap fur each winter. He says it is easy to see why the quail do better there… trapping thins down the egg eaters.

No comments: