Was the Nightjar an Early Chupacabra?

June 1, 2017

Following up on my book Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore, I have occasionally written about varied speculative pseudohistories of the chupacabra, and indeed the subject is ripe for conjecture.

In a blog titled "The Secret Prehistory of the Chupacabra," Jason Colavito writes that "the chupacabra name derives from 2,300 years of European and American traditions about nocturnal creatures that prey on livestock. And it all started with a small, completely harmless little bird."

Colavito notes, correctly in my estimation, that "The first chupacabra was not a monster, nor was it a vampire. Originally, the goatsucker was so named not because the creature sucked blood like a vampire but because it sucked milk directly from the teat. The legend originates in a story told about the European nightjar (genus Caprimulgus), a smallish, nocturnal, and insectivorous bird that inexplicably developed a bad reputation, earning it the name ‘goatsucker.' The first author to record this story is Aristotle, in his History of Animals, written around 350 BCE."

So far so good; we agree that a small bird named chupacabra--like a great many birds around the world including owls, ravens, doves, etc.--had folkloric associations, in this case that it suckled goat milk. Where we part ways is in seeing clear links between the subject of my book and the bird of lore. I briefly discuss the goatsucker bird in the first chapter of my book (see page 4). The chupacabra monster is very specifically a vampire: it sucks blood from its victims. The "goat sucker" bird that shares its name instead sucks milk from goats, which is a different theme--there are few reports of surviving chupacabra victims, as the monster's actions are typically said to be lethal. Also the word chupacabra (as specifically describing the subject of my book) was, from all indications referred specifically to rumors of goats being killed and drained of blood in rural Puerto Rico, not to the milk-drinking whippoorwill bird.

Linguistics and Legends

The best evidence is that the word chupacabra was first coined by San Juan-based radio deejay Silverio Pérez in late 1995 live while commenting on then-circulating rumors and tabloid stories about strange attacks on the island. I have been unable to find any pre-1995 references to a blood-sucking chupacabra in Puerto Rico or anywhere else--despite a standing $1,000 reward for any verifiable, published pre-1990s reference to a vampiric chupacabra--and Colavito offers none.

Colavito does an admirable job of tracing the linguistic lineage: "The name, in its now-obsolete Spanish form chotacabra, was in common use in Spanish America (including Puerto Rico) from at least the nineteenth century (and probably many centuries earlier), changing to chupacabra in the twentieth century when the older Spanish verb chotar (to suck) became obsolete and gave way to the newer synonym chupar... the nightjar is native to Puerto Rico, and I have been able to find printed references to the bird on the island as ‘chotacabra' dating back to at least 1948....The change from the obsolete form chotacabra to the modern form chupacabra, reflecting changes in colloquial Spanish, masked the connection, leading to recent claims that the word did not exist prior to 1995."

Colavito does not account for (or glosses over) the notable absence of chupacabra (as referring to the now-familiar vampiric monster, not the bird) between the time that "chotar" became "chupar" and the eve of this century.

As for a connection between the bird and the monster, Colavito suggests that "the Native and later Hispanic peoples of the Caribbean came to adopt the negative folkloric association of the goatsucker in all its vampiric [sic] glory from Spanish and Portuguese influences...and combined them with indigenous ideas of the goatsucker as an evil demon." This is certainly an interesting theory but obscures the fact that the chupacabra referred specifically to rumors of goats being killed and drained of blood in rural Puerto Rico-not to the milk-drinking whippoorwill bird, nor evil ghosts, nor evil omens, nor Mayan guards of the Underworld, nor any of the other incarnations Colavito tries to group together.

In support of his theory Colavito claims that the bird lore influence is a more likely source for the chupacabra name than actual reports of the monster sucking blood from goats: "before the creature acquired a name, it was described as everything from a bird to a Bigfoot to a (human) vampire, and its victims were everything from chickens to horses to cows-but only rarely goats. Many early attacks were specifically attributed to monstrous birds, including a wave of sightings in 1975."

In fact in the 1975 sighting he apparently refers to (known as the "Vampire of Moca" incident, discussed on page 34-35 of my book), more goats were attacked than any other type of animal. Colavito's larger error, however, is in confusing a varied morass of (possibly or likely unrelated) reports of animal predation reports for early chupacabra reports. In other words, the variety of reports he cites as having been attributed to a single source ("the creature") could not have been since those reports predated the naming of that creature. The people at the time did not, and could not have, linked it to the chupacabra except retroactively, hence the varied descriptions of the attacker ranging from Bigfoot to giant birds. The post-hoc attribution of the attacks to the as-then-unnamed chupacabra is Colavito's, not the eyewitnesses or those who spoke to them. This is a common mistake in cryptozoology, in which only superficially related reports are grouped together and offered as evidence for a specific unknown animal (for more on this see my article "Texas Monsters and the Chupacabra" in the May/June 2015 issue of Skeptical Inquirer).

Occam's Razor Draws Blood

It may be useful to apply the scientific and philosophical principle of Occam's Razor to these claims. There are several variations but generally the idea is that, overall, if there are several possible explanations for a given observed phenomenon, the theory that requires the fewest assumptions or conditions is most likely to be the correct one.

In the case of how the chupacabra name came to be affixed to a mysterious bloodsucking creature claimed to attack goats in the Puerto Rican summer of 1995, Colavito and I offer two different hypotheses. I suggest, based on my research, that on-air personality Silverio Pérez coined the term while commenting on attacks by and sightings of an as-yet-unnamed beast, including by Madelyne Tolentino in August 1995, which was in turn inspired by her seeing the film Species.

Colavito, by contrast, suggests that "the myths associated with the bird could be transferred from the now-rare and mostly forgotten avian to a cryptid that people believed really existed. When Pérez applied the term ‘goatsucker' to the monster, he must have been reusing (consciously or not) the term for the legendary bird, for the monster's victims were not all (or even primarily) goats, and absent an underlying familiarity with the ancient history of the goatsucker legend, the name simply makes no sense and would not have stuck."

Colavito's error is in assuming that the naming of the chupacabra was a considered one, informed by an accurate analysis of the animals that the beast was said to prey upon. It's not uncommon (especially in informal discourse such as on social media, on-air radio, etc.) for a catchy--but largely or wholly inaccurate--name to become affixed to an event, person, or phenomenon in the news media. Countless examples are all around us: "bath salts" are slang for a recreational drug despite not being bath salts at all; the so-called Jersey Devil has actually been seen in locations outside of New Jersey; the phrase "flying saucer," widely assumed to refer to the shape of a spacecraft, was actually first used to describe an object's movements; Spring-Heeled Jack was not actually believed to have springs in his heels; and so on. Words and phrases catch on ("have stuck" as Colavito writes, or "go viral" in today's parlance) for any number of reasons, and verifiable accuracy is not chief among them.

While we may assume that biologists who name new animals (in scientific journals, for example) give careful consideration to the name they choose, the same cannot be said for radio deejays, whose comic wit and banter is often spontaneous. Thus Pérez need not have known or assumed, as Colavito claims, that "the monster's victims were all (or even primarily) goats," but merely that a few of them were, or that at least one notable or high-profile victim was.

It is in fact logical and unsurprising that the word Pérez coined would and could have gained traction "absent an underlying familiarity with the ancient history of the goatsucker legend." Radio audiences, tabloid headline writers, and the public may have embraced the word because it was humorous, evocative, alliterative, or for any number of reasons unrelated to Colavito's theorized latent familiarity with Nightjar legends. Such an assumption is a textbook example of an unnecessary condition described by Occam's Razor.

The coining of the word is, from my research and deduction, almost certainly a simple and likely coincidence (chupacabra is an obvious coinage to describe anything said to prey on goats, regardless of its origin or nature). Pérez, a comedian, presumably could have called it "chupapollo" (chicken-sucker), for example, or "chupagato" (cat-sucker), as those animals were also claimed to be victims of the monster. However goats featured prominently in the rumors and sensational tabloid news stories circulating at the time, and reports of goat attacks specifically were likely what Pérez was commenting on when he coined the word for his listeners.

Another reason for goats to be highlighted among chupacabra victims in the news media and rumors is their strength and size; while other animals were indeed said to have been attacked (including kittens, ducks, and chickens), referencing those victims is less dramatic and sensational. Pretty much any dog-sized animal might easily kill a cat or chicken, but killing a full-grown goat--perhaps stout of stature and with dangerous horns as a natural defense--serves to emphasize the mysterious monster's power. The tabloids and rumors had a vested interest in emphasizing goat deaths over most other animals being killed at the time. Thus it's not surprising that the goat, specifically, became primarily associated with the attacks regardless of any ancillary or coincidental shared name with a bird.

There is no evidence to support Colavito's claim that Pérez spontaneously choose "cabra" from all the island's fauna based upon his conscious or unconscious knowledge of the island's "chotocabra" bird lore; instead, it's far more likely that mysteriously exsanguinated goats were already part of the as-then-unnamed monster's lore he was commenting on.

In the end the information from Colavito and others about the history and lore of the European nightjar is interesting but ultimately sheds little or no light on the bipedal blood-sucking beast claimed to have emerged from outer space and/or secret government genetics experiments in 1995 Puerto Rico.

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