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By Nic.Korte

     It was twilight. Some coyotes howled in the distance. “Look at all those bullbats,” someone said. I jumped up. What could be a bullbat?

     I was out of my element here. I had once made my grandfather angry by asking him if the cows at his Illinois dairy farm were drinking milk. This was my first time on a big Western ranch. I didn’t want to say or do anything as foolish. 

     The ranch was in Northern Arizona—an extension of the pioneer ranching family from which my father-in-law had departed. Most of his family seemed to be big, raw-boned, quintessential cowboys. My father-in-law, diminutive of stature, had become a chemical engineer and moved to Illinois—where I met his daughter—who became my wife—and now I was on a real, old-time ranch visiting Great Uncle Bill and Great Aunt Gertrude. We were staying in a somewhat remodeled Navaho Hogan. I was living a fantasy. There really were people who resembled the cowboys I’d admired on TV in my youth.

     Unfortunately, watching Bonanza on TV had not prepared me for this world of which I knew little. My father-in-law, who had left it, at least had the chaps he’d won at a junior rodeo. He could also easily ride a horse. My attempt on a horse had already been the source of some merriment. I had little success persuading my horse to walk very far from the corral where it had been happy before being saddled up. When I gave up and let it have its way; it galloped back to the corral as I awkwardly clung to the saddlehorn hoping the horse would stop before I fell off. There was an audience for my performance, and they all had a good laugh. Now, I didn’t even know what a bullbat was. All I could see were common nighthawks—of which there were plenty.

     Finally, I asked, “Where are they?” “Right there,” is what I heard, as several fingers pointed at the nighthawks. “Those are the bullbats.” It was a term new to me.

     The family to which nighthawks belong has been subject to more than this misnomer. European relatives were called goatsuckers—a term from the 1600s’ which, in turn, was translated from both Latin and Greek, because the birds were believed to suck milk from goats during the night.

     In English, we now call this family of birds “nightjars.” Trying to find out where that name came from, I learned the term dates from the 1630’s and was supposedly descriptive of the harsh sound they made during flight. One of my bird books describes the sound as “hooom,” and another simply refers to a “booming sound.” How those sounds are translated as that of a nightjar (whatever that sounds like!) is still a mystery to me. Supposedly the term bullbat was applied in the early 1800’s, and also referred to their booming flight sound.

    Nighthawks are crepuscular—meaning they appear at dusk. The rest of the day, they are sitting, possibly in full view, in a gravel area or on a tree branch. The problem is, they don’t move, and they are very well camouflaged so they are rarely seen except in flight.


     So, finally, what has any of this to do with JUCO? It is simple. As a birder, I always enjoyed the many nighthawks that descended on JUCO games as the sun set. They weave about on stiff wings—not at all like the rapid flap of a bat. They have a small bill, but a wide gape—all the better for swallowing large insects and moths.

    Unfortunately, where there used to be dozens, there are now only one or two or none. Common nighthawks have undergone a 60% decrease in their population in just a few decades ( Because nighthawks are so widespread (found in each of the 48 contiguous states); they are not in danger of extinction, but as with so many once-common species—while not too difficult to find--there just aren’t as many anymore. The skies over JUCO will probably hold a few, but nothing like the dozen or more of a couple of decades ago.

    The reasons for the loss of population are believed to be development and pesticides. These birds consume so much, that their decline may be telling us something about insect populations. Creating artificial nesting locations, by providing gravel areas on flat rooftops, is one approach being tried as a means of stopping the population decline. Meanwhile research continues in hopes of arresting the waning population of this interesting and valuable bird.

This post provided by Nic Korte, Grand Valley Audubon Society. Send questions/comments to [To learn more and to participate in the activities of Grand Valley Audubon, please see our website at and “like” us on Facebook!]


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