Chuck-Will’s Widow. Photo credit: Dick Daniels (http://carolinabirds.org/)
Chuck-Will’s-widow (Antrostomus carolinensis) have been singing near the sanctuary headquarters for the past three evenings. This is the first time in the 11 years in residence here that I’ve heard Chuck-Will’s-widow.
Like the whippoorwill (Antrostmous vociferus), Chuck-Will’s widow also calls out his name when he sings. And, also like the whips, the repetitive singing can go on for several minutes without stopping. If one isn’t accustomed to knowing birds by their songs one might think whips and chucks sound alike. But, if one is lucky enough to hear both birds singing at the same time the distinction is immediately obvious.
Chuck-Will’s-widow and whippoorwills are in the same family as nighthawks, the Caprimulgidae family. The word comes from the latin word Caprimulgus, which translate to goatsucker. If you’ve ever wondered why nightjars are often referred to as goatsuckers, it comes from an ancient, widespread belief that they sucked milk from goats.
Nightjars are primarily nocturnal birds that are most active in the late evening and early morning. They feed on moths and other large flying insects taken in flight or by foraging in decaying wood or on the ground. They have a disproportionately small beak compared to an extremely large mouth. Chuck-Will’s-widow are the largest of the nightjars and it’s been reported that they occasionally eat small birds and bats. They also have extraordinarily short legs and small feet in comparison to their bulky bodies. Nevertheless, they are often found perched lengthwise along a tree branch. Due to the cryptic nature of their coloration they are incredibly well camouflaged as bark or leaves.
Nightjars don’t build nests, but instead lay one or two patterned eggs directly onto a carpet leaves directly on the ground. In 1840 John James Audubon described this observation of a Chuck-Will’s-widow nesting:
When the Chuck-wills-widow either male or female (for each sits alternately) has discovered that the eggs have been touched, it ruffle its feathers and appears extremely dejected for a minute or two, after which it emits a low murmuring cry, scarcely audible at a distance of more than eighteen or twenty yards. At this time the other parent reaches the spot, flying so low over the ground that I thought its little feet must have touched it, as it skimmed along, and after a few low notes and some gesticulations all indicative of great distress, takes an egg in its large mouth, the other bird doing the same, when they would fly off together, skimming closely over the ground, until they disappeared among the branches and trees. But to what distance they remove the eggs, I have never been able to ascertain; nor have I ever had an opportunity of witnessing the removal of the young. Should a person, coming upon the nest when the bird is sitting, refrain from touching the eggs, the bird returns to them and sits as before. This fact I have also ascertained by observations.
The summer, breeding range of the Chuck-Will’s-widow comes up into far southern Illinois. Whereas the eastern whippoorwill breeds all the way up to the U.S. border with Canada.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology points to Breeding Bird Survey results that suggest a decline in eastern U.S. populations of about 1.8 percent per year between 1966 and 1991. But since Chuck-will’s-widows aren’t active during most of the day, they are difficult to survey. Cornell suggests that interested individuals can help count nightjars by joining the United States Nightjar Survey. Here in Illinois people can volunteer with the Illinois Natural History Survey’s Monitoring of Owls and Nightjars (MOON) project.
While the seemingly incessant singing of both the Chuck-Will’s-widow and eastern whippoorwill right outside one’s bedroom window is often cause to complain, consider this–it could be a freight train rumbling by or sirens screaming. So if you are ever tempted to complain, consider yourself lucky to get to hear one of the most iconic sounds of summer in the Midwest!
For more interesting natural history of the nightjars see Life Histories of North American Cuckoos, Goatsuckers, Hummingbirds, and Their Allies by Arthur Cleveland Bent, 1940.