Caprimulgids: Nightjars, Nighthawks, and Frogmouths - Animals

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

Caprimulgids: Nightjars, Nighthawks, and Frogmouths

The nocturnal birds known as nighthawks are neither hawks nor owls; instead they are caprimulgids or “goatsuckers.” The Caprimulgiformes are an avian order numbering 91 species including nightjars, nighthawks, frogmouths, goatsuckers, and whippoorwills. They live in Africa, Australia, the Americas, Europe, and Asia. Alongside the better-known owls and corvids, these are the birds most intensely identified with witchcraft.

Owls are their nearest relatives and it’s believed that owls and nightjars, the lay term most frequently used to encompass this avian family, share descent from a common ancestor, perhaps not more than 100 million years ago.

Long-winged, long-tailed birds with relatively big eyes, they are characterized by some unique features:

Image They possess enormous mouths fringed with bristles that prevent the escape of insects, their main food.

Image They have proportionately short legs and weak feet, unsuitable for walking, unlike corvids which spend a lot of time hopping on the ground. Nightjars are adapted for a life spent mainly in the air.

Image They have loud, distinctive voices.

Nightjars roost motionless in trees or on the ground during day. As their plumage is dull brown or gray, they are easily camouflaged; thus their loud cry can come as a sudden surprise. They are rarely observed during the day but are more readily seen at twilight or night. Shadowy and mysterious, they have long been associated with witchcraft and magic. Nightjar blood is an ingredient in ancient Egyptian magic spells. Nightjars and their relatives are also associated with prophecy, death, and the devil.

Their gaping fringed mouths are unique for birds and lead to comparisons with the female genitalia, sometimes even with the dread vagina dentata. Whether these associations are perceived as affirmations of fertility power or as diabolical embarrassments depend upon the eye of the beholder.

Nightjar is an English word; in German they’re known as hexe (witch). Considering that caprimulgids are harmless, insect-eating birds, they possess a fearsome reputation as vampires and are the subject of various superstitions. This vampiric reputation dates back at least to Aristotle. Nightjars are believed to suck blood or milk from animals—hence their family name, “goatsuckers.” (They don’t.) One theory suggests that because they forage for insects, nightjars often linger around livestock, especially goats. If for any reason an animal was bleeding, or a nanny goat’s milk was dripping and a largemouthed, eerie-voiced nightjar was discovered nearby, conclusions might be drawn and the nightjar blamed.

During the witch-hunt era, goats were identified as emblems of Satan who allegedly gave witches imps that they suckled on their own milk. With a name like “goatsucker,” the inference is clear; how could these birds not be associated with witchcraft and the devil? As example of their reputation, a species of nightjar from Sulawesi is actually named the diabolical nightjar (Eurostopodus diabolicus).

Yoruba witches fly around at night in the form of nightjars, sucking victims’ blood, while the Tukana Indians of South America believe that dead souls transform into nightjars and suck blood and vitality vampirically from the living.