Nightjar Creation Myth – by Anita Roy

Supermoon, November 2016 (Tom Ruen, Wikimedia Commons)

Commissioned for Land Lines: Nightjar Nights, June 2020

To celebrate the first night of our Nightjar Nights series from the 8th–13th June, Nature Revealed: Tracks, Traces and Trails are delighted to present an exclusive story from author Anita Roy! In this beautiful piece, Anita images the how the nightjar came into being, through an original creation story involving the Moon, the Earth, and a silver web woven by the spider god Anansi… listen to Anita read the story below, or download the PDF and read it for yourself! Don’t forget – if you have your own stories, photos, or memories of the nightjar, email them to us at landlines@leeds.ac.uk or tweet us!


Anita Roy reads her Nightjar Creation Myth for Land Lines, June 2020

In the interest of accessibility, we are making video transcripts available for our video content. You can download the PDF here:

Note from the Author

The European Nightjar (Caprimulgus europeaus) is a migratory bird that each year travels thousands of miles, from sub-Saharan Africa to as far north as Siberia and back again in what is invariably referred to in popular nature writing as ‘an epic journey’. That any creature this small could navigate its way across distances this vast beggars belief – especially when, as in the nightjar’s case, that involves crossing such seemingly impossible geographical barriers as the Sahara Desert and the Mediterranean Sea. 

European Nightjar, by Richard Toller (License CC BY-ND 2.0)

Nightjars are nocturnal, feeding on flying insects that they catch on the wing in their wide gaping beaks. During their migration each spring, they feed en route, fuelling up for their long journey to their breeding grounds. Scientists know a lot about what nightjars eat, what route they follow and how much energy they expend but until last year, no one had stopped to consider if their migration pattern had anything to do with the moon. To put it in dry scientific terms, “studies on migration strategies generally assume static intake rates, while the temporal influence of periodically fluctuating fuelling conditions on migration speed has not been considered.” 

In October 2019, The New Scientist reported the findings of a group of Swedish scientists from Lund University who had tracked 39 individuals, using GPS, geolocation systems and multisensor data loggers, along their migration route from South Africa to northern Europe.1 They found that the birds travel not at a steady, average rate but in bursts, synchronised perfectly to the phases of the moon. This is because during full moon nights, the opportunity for feeding is much greater – the birds have excellent night-vision and catch their prey using sight rather than hearing, echolocation or smell – so when the moon is bright, nocturnal insects are more active and more visible, and the birds can gorge, often feeding not just at dawn and dusk, but through the night. On moonless nights, they cover much greater distances, stopping to forage less frequently and for shorter periods. “As the moon wanes, increasing numbers of nightjars embark on flights along their migration route, peaking at around 11 days after a full moon. Sometimes, all of the tracked birds would migrate simultaneously at this time in a great pulse.”2

Nightjar, Jupiter and Venus by Tom Lee on Flickr ((License CC BY-ND 2.0)

To a non-scientist like me, all this seems simultaneously blindingly obvious and utterly mysterious: ‘Of course they’ll behave like this, it makes perfect sense’ on the one hand, and on the other – the birds, individually and collectively, synchronised with our own planet’s satellite? It’s extraordinary to think: they are dancing in tune with the moon. 

This led me to wonder what tales nightjars would tell if they could speak? Perhaps their strange percussive trilling call, which to human ears sounds like nothing more than an involuntary and meaningless noise, is the birds’ own folksong or ballad. A story of their species’ creation. A founding myth. 

1 Norevik G, Åkesson S, Andersson A, Bäckman J, Hedenström A (2019) The lunar cycle drives migration of a nocturnal bird. PLoS Biol 17(10): e3000456. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.3000456

2‘Nightjars time their epic migration flights using a lunar calendar,’ Jake Buehler, New Scientist 3253, 15 October 2019. https://www.newscientist.com/article/2219944-nightjars-time-their-epic-migration-flights-using-a-lunar-calendar/#ixzz6NeO6zMTZ

About the Author

Anita Roy

Anita Roy’s books include A Year in Kingcombe: The Wildflower Meadows of Dorset and the fantasy novel, Gravepyres School for the Recently Deceased. Her essays have appeared in Granta, Guernica, The Clearing and Dark Mountain, and she is a regular columnist for The Hindu Business Line newspaper in India. She holds an MA in Travel and Nature Writing from Bath Spa University. More about her and a selection of her writing can be found at: www.anitaroy.net

Join us again tomorrow on the Land Lines homepage, where we will be releasing Dr David Higgins’ piece – ‘Romantic Nightjars’ – at 8pm!

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