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Column: My old friends Chuck and Will

Posted: April 23, 2018 1:45 p.m.
Updated: April 24, 2018 1:00 a.m.

This has been one of the weirder transitions from winter into spring. No doubt, that meme that’s been making the rounds on social media -- the one with the groundhog with a condom up his nose and a Tide pod in his hand – has not seemed that farfetched from reality.

While I do tend to believe climate change is a real thing and not just some left wing plot to discredit such think tanks as the Flat Earth Society, I’ve seen plenty of winters hang on or worse, duck out and come back, Mother Nature’s strip tease as it were.  I mean, how many times have we seen flowers -- wisteria, for example -- blooming wildly in the middle of March, only to get killed off by one final cold snap right after Easter?

Whatever one’s feelings may be, the one thing I have always been able to count on as a true harbinger of spring is my old friend, Chuck. Indeed, when Chuck starts singing, I know spring is truly here, whether it’s 30 degrees or 80 degrees outside.

Chuck, of course, is a Chuck Will’s Widow that returns every year to the woods around our house. He just suddenly shows up, announcing in very loud, distinctive and no uncertain terms that Central America is a pretty groovy place to spend the winter, was nice, but now it’s time to get back to business.

A lot of people mistake a Chuck Will’s Widow for a Whippoorwill -- which is probably no big deal to anyone except an ornithologist -- much of the difference seems to be a matter of the song they sing. They are both what are known as “nightjars” -- that is, birds whose songs will jar you out of a sound sleep -- and they are both of similar size, coloration and habits. Whippoorwills repeat their name in a fairly rapid, high pitched song, all night long.  Chuck Will’s Widows are similar birds, but they seem to be a little more Southern -- they talk a little slower and a little lower, but they’re just as loud.

Both birds are migratory and both tend to return to the same areas to nest year after year, assuming their patch of woods has not turned into yet another clot of tract homes on a street named for one of the trees they cut down to build it.

You know one is in the neighborhood immediately; they are not at all shy about announcing their presence, although the chances of you actually seeing one are fairly nill. At night, they fly around at night and eat buckets of moths, beetles and mosquitoes when they’re not rattling the shingles off your house with their songs. But after a hard night of that, they will find a low branch, somewhere, or maybe a patch of leaves in the woods, and stretch out for a good day’s sleep. Unless you actually step on one, you won’t see it.

Some folks over the years found Chuck’s and poor Will’s songs disturbing, often seeing them as portents of evil or just plain bad luck.

I beg to differ.

These birds always bring back great memories of long, lazy summer nights, when it was perfectly OK to wander the neighborhood after dark without being thought of as a delinquent or having annoying helicopter parents following in nearby mini-vans. If you ever camped out in the summer woods, or even in a suburban back yard back in the day, the night’s adventure probably came with a soundtrack courtesy of Chuck or poor Will, even as you told those stories about the hook hand killer and the mad woodcutter the police never caught.

These days it’s just nice to know that, for all the network buffoonery, especially on the part of weather “professionals” these days, the one critter I can actually count on to be correct is still around. And when I stop hearing him call his name all night, when Chuck heads south again, usually at the end of August or early September, I can go ahead and start working on my firewood pile and taking sweaters out of mothballs -- Chuck and Will know it won’t be much longer before I need all that stuff.

Sadly, we lose more and more wildlife habitat each year to the great god “Progress.” It does bother me to see houses where there should be pine trees and scrub oak forests, more strip malls where there should be more fields and sand barrens.

Yeah, I know, people need places to live and shop, including yours truly, since I’m not planning on planting poke salad or digging up roots and berries for supper any time soon.

But it seems we could leave a little more for Chuck and poor Will and the others, too. Or do you really like it when the deer eat the landscaping on your front lawn in the middle of town?

Besides, last time I checked, most of the folks in that new subdivision over yonder didn’t know enough to come out of the rain, much less know whether it was winter or summer. They may open their mouths a lot, but they certainly aren’t doing or saying anything useful with them, like eating mosquitoes or singing a song to the night.

What I would give to hear Chuck and Will, instead of cell phones, chirping.


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