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Of Goatsuckers, and the Legend of Chuck-Will’s Widow

Bill Meredith

In last month’s article I quoted a definition of an ecologist in which the word "divigation" was used, and noted that the word was not in the dictionary. The other day I received a note from a friend who has given me helpful comments on other occasions, telling me that the reason I didn’t find it in the dictionary was that it was misspelled in the book where I found it. The correct spelling is "divagation." I was glad to know this, because the correct spelling makes it obvious that the word is derived from the same root as "vagrant," i.e., one who wanders or strays, and also because my mind has been doing it again.

It was the last week of August, and we had just arrived at the beach in North Carolina to spend a short vacation with our son and his family. After driving all day, sitting on the porch at dusk with a sea breeze blowing and the sound of surf in the background made me feel as if I had wandered into one of those states of grace that the artist, Francesco Clemente, says he feels when a painting is going well. I was listening idly to the calls of seagulls when I heard what sounded like a nighthawk… a scratchy, nasal "beennnkkk," similar to the sound made by holding a knife blade flat on the edge of a tabletop and twanging the handle with your finger. No other bird sounds like that, and I was surprised to hear it because while nighthawks are common inland, they usually don’t come right up to the edge of the sea. The sound was repeated, but it didn’t seem quite right, and after a few minutes I realized that it wasn’t a nighthawk at all; it was a buzzer attached to a kite someone was flying on the beach. That should have been the end of it, but instead my mind wandered off on a divagation that led from nighthawks to related birds, and then to memories of my grandfather.

Nighthawks and their relatives are not really hawks; they belong to an odd family of birds called "goatsuckers." They get their family name because they have huge mouths which they use to catch moths and other insects on the wing at night, much as swallows feed in the daytime. As recently as the 19th century, country folk believed the purpose of these enormous mouths was to suck milk from goats and other livestock… why else would a bird need a mouth that big?... and in every community there were people who would swear convincingly that they had seen goatsuckers in action.

Three species of goatsuckers live in the eastern U. S. The first species, the nighthawk, is fairly common; they nest on flat roofs in cities, and you can usually see them in Baltimore, catching insects around the lights of the Camden Yards stadium when the Orioles have home games. They migrate through this area in the fall, and you might see large flocks of them flying south any time from now until mid-October.

The second species, the Whip-poor-will, used to be common around Emmitsburg; when we lived on the college campus in the 1950s I often heard them calling in the forest on the mountain. As more building has occurred in local forests they have become rare here, but I still hear them around my son’s home in Garrett County. I heard them as a child in West Virginia, and my grandfather told me the story of how they used to steal milk when he was a boy. In those days grandfathers were called "Pappy," and Pappy Meredith was a storyteller of prodigious ability. I’m sure he didn’t believe the story himself… there were plenty of more logical reasons why a cow might come home with an empty udder, such as a neighbor’s calf getting into the field, or wandering vagrants stealing milk (there were real Gypsies in Marion County in those days)… but Whip-poor-wills made too good a story to pass up.

The third species, Chuck-will’s-widow, is found in forests from the mountains to the coast. You can recognize it when you hear it because it pronounces its name… a four-syllable call with the two middle syllables loudest. I actually saw one on Assateague Island several years ago. Naturally enough, it came to mind as I sat on the porch that evening listening to the roar of the surf and the kite twanging in the wind. And that is where Pappy reappeared. He probably never heard of Chuck-will’s-widow, but if he had, he immediately would have assumed she had once been married to someone called Chuck-Will, who is no longer with us. At that point, the story literally took on a life of its own; Pappy told me the story, and all I had to do was get a piece of paper and write it down.

What ever happened to old Chuck-Will?
  I’ve not seen him lately up there on the hill,
Where along about dusk he often would come,
  a-singing and cussing as he wandered home.

Chuck-Will wasn’t liked much by most of the folks.
  Behind his back, kids would make sarcastic jokes,
And everyone watched him, for when he came by
  Before a day passed, someone’s goat would go dry.

This afternoon I chanced to meet with his wife…
  A woman who’s led a hard, unhappy life…
"How’ve you been?" I asked, in my most neighborly voice;
  "Porely," she answered, "I aint got much choice."

"And how’s old Will?" I asked, trying to cheer.
  "’E’s daid," she replied, "since late last year."
"Why, ‘pon my soul!" said I, for I hadn’t heard…
  no rumors or gossip… nary a word!

"What happened?" "Stummick gripes, I guess;
  I knowed they was sumpin’ there, sommer’s, amiss
When ‘e got all hooched over ‘n’ staggered about.
  ’E claimed that ’e jest had a tetch o’ the gout,

But I tole ’im ’e never would last out the year
  When ’e stopped drinkin’ goat’s milk and went onto beer.
So now I’m left here, alone an’ all bitter,
  To live out my days as Chuck-Will’s widder."

In the interest of journalistic accuracy, I must confess that Pappy didn’t actually tell that story. But he would have, if he’d a’really been there.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith