Troubadour Of The Night

Tom Poland

Posted 4/29/24

By Tom Poland
A Southern Writer

Three a.m. I looked out my bedroom window to see eyes aglow with foxfire. I could not see its head, its mouth, but from it came the sweetest, most melancholy song. Just like that I was so lonely I could cry.

A triplet of birdsong comes to me now. I love the bobwhite’s piercing whistle. And the mockingbird’s a virtuoso that pours its little heart into many a melody. Another bird though, one you never see, to me is by far the supreme songbird. Being Southern, an Alabama boy, Hank knew the music, and living in the South as you do, you do too. The troubadour of the night, the twilight soloist without question, is the whippoorwill.

Birders know my songster as the Eastern whip-poor-will. Yes I know its range covers the eastern U.S., but to me it’s a Southerner for what’s a Southern evening without its dulcet song. And now I hear cicadas of another kind add a sawmill whine refrain to nature’s symphony. But we have annual cicadas come summer, and how we’d miss their call if they left.

Yes, down South, nature blesses our days and nights with music. Cicadas’ rising-falling singsong gives summer days rhythm, a pleasing crescendo decrescendo. Just past sundown, katydids chime in with their nightshift song, a castanet patter backed by cricket chitter. And then from an isolated outpost, the lilting call of a whip-poor-will drifts through darkness. The whip-poor-will’s lament will haunt you. Title its mournful song, “Desolation.”

There’s another name for our desolate troubadour of the night, nightjar. The name comes from Europeans, but their nightjars don’t make music anywhere sweet as our evening companion’s three-note song. Each time I hear that melodic, repetitive, mesmerizing call I’m so lonely I could cry. The night I heard the music and looked out my boyhood window at 3 a.m. I was 14 or so. We had just buried one of our family dogs. The troubadour of the night perched on a backyard cedar pole. A male whip-poor-will found the perch, bereft of the birdhouse, to its liking. It sat there eulogizing the night with its song.

City dwellers, in your country wanderings you’ve heard this night song. Don’t you miss the call of this nocturnal bird? I surely do. And we may miss it much more than we think. It’s on the decline. Thank you modern world with your insecticides, brush-clearing machines, and prowling cats.

Glory be to the bird that’s bigger than a robin but smaller than a crow. It’s famous. Poems, songs, I daresay literature, pay homage to our troubadour. “Like a flute in the woods,” wrote Longfellow. “Oh whippoorwill, you make my heart stand still.” That lyric comes from the Ozark Mountain Daredevils “Whippoorwill.” And then there’s this. They lay their eggs in phase with the lunar cycle. Little whip-poor-wills come into this life about 10 days before a full moon.

Beautify your life. Mark the calendar. On a night when the moon is near full, sit on your porch, deck, or open a window and listen. Mom and dad whip-poor-will be foraging, bringing home the bacon to their nestlings. Perchance you’ll hear our Southern troubadour.

“‘Perchance I’ll see one,’ you say?” No.

I have yet to see its complicated mottling of gray and brown rendering it near invisible on bark and leaf litter. I may have seen one flutter across my headlights, maybe, but I hear its sad, poignant call, and I have yet to see its round, fine head and mustached bill, but I hope to before I die. And when I do, I’d like for someone to play its lilting call at my funeral. Just sixty seconds’ worth. Maybe someone will recall I wrote this little troubadour story. Maybe someone will feel so lonesome they could cry.


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