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An Urban Wildlife Mystery

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Published on: Mar. 2, 1998

Last revision: Oct. 28, 2010

front of a white fencing mask with a paper clip and stealthily made his way back to the spot. His lure was now attached to the front of his face where he could see it. He stepped onto the sidewalk and began to walk backwards.

He shuffled, stooped, bobbed, swung his head gently from side to side. Nothing. Nothing happened at all.

The Plot Thickens

Chris said he had no idea what exactly thwacked him those nights, though he was pretty sure it had been a bird, and it never happened again. We watched the birds hover and dive over the campus buildings across from my house a few more evenings that spring. We didn't learn the name of those birds either and, as the days grew muggier, we stopped sitting on my sidewalk and forgot all about them until late September.

We started playing tennis that fall and saw the birds again under the lights of a tennis court. The birds came swooping into our court, rising and swerving and darting in the cast of light. We soon realized the birds were expertly snatching moths that fluttered near our court lights. They made it appear easy, even though they gave chase with peculiar, irregular flappings of their wings, as if they had momentarily fallen into cadence with the erratic flight of the moths.

We counted about 12 birds that were shaped something like hawks. They had elegant white bands across the underside of each wing. We abandoned tennis and sat down to watch them feed. Surrounding us was a cluster of cold-looking, stone buildings and, beyond that, the rest of our small, noisy city. What kind of birds, we wondered, would find themselves here?

Determined Research

On the shelves of Ellis Library on the M.U. campus in Columbia, birds come after amphibians. The bird section begins with Acta Ornithologica, a Polish bird journal translated into English, and ends with a book titled Birds as Monitors of Environmental Change. In between them lie 32 feet of shelves holding books about the world's birds and every bird-thing you can think of.

Using an Audubon guide, I was able to identify the birds near my apartment and on the tennis court as common nighthawks. I learned they are related to about 16 caprimulgids or goatsucker species in North America, Central America and the Caribbean region. They are shaped similarly to hawks, but they are not birds of prey and do

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