Phil Hardy’s A bird’s eye view: nightjars and goatsuckers

Published 1:59 pm Saturday, August 26, 2017

Recently Johnny Shiver of Americus asked me, “Why don’t I have any Chuck-will’s-widows in my neighborhood anymore?” His inquiry got me to thinking that it’s been a very long time since I’ve heard any around my neighborhood also. What’s going on?
A quick Internet search on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website All About Birds showed that these birds are of least concern, according to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List. In case you aren’t familiar with the IUCN ratings they are, from least to most severe, as follows: least concern, conservation dependent, near threatened, vulnerable, endangered, critically endangered, extinct in the wild and extinct.
So why haven’t I and many of my birding friends heard these southern denizens of the night sing their melodious yet monotonous call in recent times? When was the last time you heard them? Can you recall?
The most fun times of my youth were camping trips with my Boy Scout troop. Red Top Mountain and Hard Labor Creek state parks were our favorite destinations. It was inevitable that I would always pitch my tent in an area that had Chuck-will’s-widows or Whip-poor-wills. After a day of playing, a meal (if you could call a hot-dog on a stick a meal) and a campfire, our leader would announce that it was time for us to get some sleep. All comfortable in my sleeping bag and recapping the day, it never failed that a Chuck-will’s-widow would occupy an area adjacent to my tent and crank up his unique song.
Chucks don’t call only once or twice to announce territory or for a mate. I checked with the Department of Redundancy Department and found that their onomatopoeic call is made repetitively, over-and-over, continuously and recurring. At times the calling lasted for hours, or so it seemed to this young Boy Scout.
“Is this bird ever going to shut-up?” I wondered.
And when it did stop its soliloquy, I couldn’t sleep for wondering when it was going to start up again. That’s when the bird would move to the other side of my tent and begin all over again its marathon singing session.
Chuck-will’s-widows and Whip-poor-wills are members of a group of birds known as nightjars. Their Latin genus name, Caprimulgus, literally translates to goatsucker. Goat what?
Once upon a time, well before Al invented the Internet, before 8-track tapes and even before Aristotle in 300 B.C., it was thought that these birds, because of their cryptic coloration, their superficial resemblance to owls, huge mouths and their nocturnal and crepuscular life style, would suckle nanny goats at night rendering them dry the next morning. One source I read indicated the goat would often go blind as a result! Nightjars were even associated with witchery.
We now know these stories to be superstition and old wives’ tales because nightjars are strictly insectivores. Their foraging habits near goats and sheep is largely due to the presence of insects around livestock.
My gut feeling tells me the reason we are hearing fewer of these birds calling on our spring and summer nights is due to 1) habitat loss, 2) predators such as feral/outdoor cats, raccoons and o’possums, and 3) pesticide use. In fact, according to Charlie Muise, Georgia’s Important Bird Area coordinator, a very large percentage of the most steeply declining bird species are insectivores. But science doesn’t rely on a researcher’s feelings or instincts. Facts, data and field work are required to make the determination. And herein lies the problem.
My National Geographic field guide, Complete Birds of North America, indicates that the nocturnal habits of most (nightjar) species make study difficult. Much remains unknown about these secretive, migratory birds. Habitat deterioration and or destruction and pesticides present the greatest threats.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of North America, website indicates “… little is known about nesting behavior, breeding success, habitat use and population status. These knowledge gaps are especially troubling. Although Chuck-will’s-widows are known to nest in suburban habitat, the extreme nature of urban sprawl and intensified agriculture in the South may be causing population declines that are as yet undetected.”
The plain and simple truth is this: due to the nocturnal and migratory life-style of Chuck-will’s-widows and Whip-poor-wills, research and knowledge are very limited. If I were researching a bird I think I would be more productive to study a bird I could actually see than one so camouflaged, secretive and nocturnal.
So, what can we do to add knowledge to this deficient data base? Well for one thing I have decided to take on a nightjar survey route that will help researchers determine answers to questions concerning population densities. If you are interested in learning more about nightjars or want to have your own survey route, go to on the Internet. Their research depends on volunteers like you and me.
Remember to enjoy our wild birds.

Phil Hardy, a bird watcher and bird photographer, lives in Americus.