Long before I had ever seen a print of and read a discussion about
Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, I listened to and watched for real nighthawks in the 1950’s evening skies on the Quarter Circle A ranch in Manatee County, Florida. Hopper’s 1942 oil on canvas painting captured people metaphorically as nightbirds in a downtown diner late at night. The birds that entertained me during those adolescent nights were acrobatic and curiously musical when their peent, peent preceded a roaring boom that reminded me of a distant locomotive going by in the night.
In 2005, Laura Erickson described the common nighthawk as having “long, graceful wings marked with a crescent moon, flying in and out of
the glowing halo of streetlights.” She went on to verbally paint a picture of “the species’ characteristically erratic yet graceful flight (as) moth-like in purpose, (with) nighthawks swooping and darting through the sky in pursuit of lepidopterans and other insects.
Arthur Cleveland Brent reported the Seminole tribe of Florida called the bird “Ho-pil-car.” Other Native American tribes like the “Chippewas not only had the name “Besh-que” for the nighthawk but recognized it as a species distinct from the whip-poor-will, to which they gave the name “Gwen-go-wi-a.” Another Native American culture tale explained “why the Nighthawk wears fine clothes.”
Nighthawks featured in many cultures’ myths and were labeled as goatsuckers because “superstitious goat-herds in ancient Greece saw night birds fluttering open-mouthed around their livestock and believed the birds came out at dark to drink milk from the mammals’ teats.” A Japanese story suggests a nighthawk wanted to become as glowing as a star. Nighthawk did become a metaphoric star via Marvel Comics.
From the 3rd chapter, “Nighthawks,” in Growing Up Floridian:
Nighthawks took to the sky as the bees left the clover. Flashes of white from their underwings reflecting the setting sun’s last rays signaled their swooping arrival in the air above me. First the repeated “peent” calls bounced back and forth, sometimes echoing off the thick tree line behind me. The dominant sound, however, was like loud blowing on the mouth of a bottle or a distant train whistle that lasted for only a couple seconds when one dove almost to the ground. The dives were steep, and the birds would pull up just in time to miss impact with the ground in a similar steep ascent. I heard the birds referred to as “skeeter hawks” several times, because, as I was told, they were supposed to eat their weight in mosquitos nightly. Whether they were chasing insects or showing off for mates, their display was far better than the grainy images on a black and white television screen that brought shows in via an antenna that stood ten feet above the roof of the house. A red-bellied woodpecker hammered on that television antenna for several mornings in a row once, driving my father to consider borrowing a shotgun. Fortunately for the bird, trees enticed him more than aluminum, and he gave up beating on metal.