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Beware... chupacabras are lurking nearby
by Karen Benson
Jun 05, 2013 | 1760 views | 0 0 comments | 24 24 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Jimmy Jackson photo
Seen mostly reflected from car headlights along rural roads in South Texas, the Common Pauraque’s fiery reddish eyes can startle the unsuspecting driver. It flies up from its spot to catch low-flying insects at night. Pauraques are members of the goatsucker family of birds. Could these secretive birds be the inspiration for the chupacabra legend?
Jimmy Jackson photo Seen mostly reflected from car headlights along rural roads in South Texas, the Common Pauraque’s fiery reddish eyes can startle the unsuspecting driver. It flies up from its spot to catch low-flying insects at night. Pauraques are members of the goatsucker family of birds. Could these secretive birds be the inspiration for the chupacabra legend?
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If you want to be entertained for an hour or so, go to the Internet and look up “chupacabra.” The word is associated with a cryptic creature on the order of Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster. A chupacabra is said to have blue-gray skin, spines along its back, glowing red eyes and be about four feet tall. It can hop long distances on its hind feet, somewhat like a kangaroo. And it has a taste for blood.

Chupacabras are blamed for a number of unexplained animal deaths. Chickens, pets and goats are found dead with puncture marks on their throats. The carcasses are reported to be “completely drained of blood.”

Sounds pretty awful, doesn’t it? Fortunately, there seems to be very little evidence for such a creature. Most biologists regard the chupacabra stories as just another urban legend.

For one thing, the description of the chupacabra fits a character in the science-fiction movie, Species. That movie came out the summer that the legend started. The chupacabra may just be the result of “movie madness.”

Biologists suggest that the dead animals were most likely killed by dogs or coyotes. Veterinarians autopsied 300 of the victims and found that the bodies were not drained of blood after all.

A couple of years ago, an alleged chupacabra was found dead near Cuero. DNA analysis and examination of the tissues determined the beast to be a coyote with a really bad case of mange. That should have put an end to the legend.

So you probably won’t believe me when I tell you that I have seen a chupacabra. Not once, but several times. They are common in the South Texas brush country.

OK, OK. I am referring to a bird. But that bird is a “goatsucker.”

The word chupacabra comes from the Spanish words, chupar (to suck) and cabra (goat). It was originally applied to birds that were believed to suckle milk from goats. Now this is a pretty weird thing for a bird to do. In fact, it is almost impossible for an animal with a beak to suckle. I think it must have been something someone dreamed up.

The beaks of goatsuckers are very small, but their mouths (or gapes) open very wide. The open mouth resembles the mouth of a frog. It is an imaginative leap, but maybe that mouth looked like it could fit over the teat of a goat.

I once saw a nighthawk, a member of the goatsucker family, cornered on the ground by a dog. The poor bird could only open its mouth and make a puffy noise. But since its mouth was so wide, it was scary. It freaked out the dog. So there is no telling what a human would make of such a sight.

This group of birds is also known as the Caprimulgids. The family includes nighthawks, whip-poor-wills, nightjars, frogmouths and potoos. Representative species of Caprimulgids are found all over the world.

In South Texas, we have a resident goatsucker. It’s the Common Pauraque (pronounced puh-RAH-kee). It is about 11 inches long and patterned in various shades of brown. When it sits on the ground, which it often does, the pauraque is well camouflaged. It looks just like the leaf litter around it.

All the goatsuckers catch insects in midair. Most cruise along with their mouths opened like a sweep net. But pauraques hunt from a resting position on the ground. They sit in an opening in the brush or along a rural road and watch for low-flying night insects. When a pauraque sees an insect, it flutters up a few feet to catch it and then returns to the ground. They do this almost all night long.

To see a pauraque in South Texas, you need only to drive along a rural road after dark. Pauraque’s eyes shine rosy red in car headlights. It is an eerie sight. Most observers say that the bird is on the edge of the road facing toward the center. The light-colored road shows the silhouettes of the flying insects, making it easier for the pauraque to see its prey.

Even if you have never seen one, you probably have heard one. The pauraques call all year long but more frequently in the spring. The sound is a distinctive “pur-wheeeer” that can be repeated all night long. It is a breezy, whistled call. I think it may be the source of the bird’s name. Pauraque is a Hispanic pronunciation and spelling of the indigenous peoples’ name for this common goatsucker.

Listen for the Common Pauraque after dark or during the pre-dawn hours. Once heard, you will begin to associate the sound with the Brush Country. If you hear it as a recording somewhere else, you will be nostalgic for South Texas. And you will want to return!
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