Goatsuckers Add Mystery
And Song To The Night

By Ann Hingas


If you ever need a bird’s song to set a warm but lonely country scene, you need look no farther than the Whip-poor-will's and the Chuck-will’s-widow's, two members of a peculiar family of birds that have many entries in human song and superstition.

Whip-poor-wills and a Chuck-will’s-widow or two were calling in southern Indiana last week, sure signs of spring’s firm grip on the land.  Both are among that group of birds whose names derive from their song (as in the Bob White and Chickadee, for example).  With the Whip-poor-will and the Chuck-will’s-widow, there can be no doubt what species it is when you hear it sing.  Both repeat their common name, over and over, sometimes well into the night.  On a warm night in Mid-May, their calling can sound almost frantic.

Whip-poor-wills and Chuck-will’s-widows are members of the so-called “nightjar” or “goatsucker” family of birds whose scientific name is Caprimulgiformes. Other family members you might see or hear in Indiana are the Poor-will and Nighthawk.  The Nighthawk is probably the most commonly seen and heard member of the family these days.  There are 67 family members around the world.

These birds are called goatsuckers or nightjars, because European farmers in times past thought the birds’ mouths were just the right size to latch onto a goat’s teat and suck out all its milk during the night.  The family members’ habit of flying about at dusk and just before daylight added to their mysterious reputation.

Of course, no self-respecting Whip-poor-will  would ever drink milk, since the species specializes in eating insects.  The Chuck-will’s-widow, larger of the two at about 12 inches, is reported to take an occasional warbler or sparrow.  Both species hunt by flying low to the ground.

It is rare to see a Whip-poor-will or a Chuck-will’s-widow at all, let alone in the daytime. Both possess “cryptic” coloration.  Their feathers match a leafy forest floor, and that’s where they spend their days, roosting on the ground in dry, open forests.  Nearly every article on the Whip-poor-will notes that the best look most people will ever get of this species is when they see its red eyes shining in car headlights in the evening.  Many people will never see one.

“So perfect are the camouflage colors of the Whip-poor-will it is considered practically invisible in the daytime as it blends in with the fallen leaves and twigs. Even if one knows where to look within ten feet of the bird, they can search for a half hour before seeing its outlines. When crouching on a limb, the Whip-poor-will turns lengthwise rather than crosswise - like other members of their family which is better for hiding. Whip-poor-wills are best spotted on full moon nights as they chase moths silently through the skies. Many bird lovers consider their plumage to be very beautiful, with its rich mingling of brown, buff and near-gold,” says the Georgia Wildlife Federation’s outline of the species. 

You can see a good photo of a Whip-poor-will at http://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/id/framlst/Photo/Images/h4170pi.jpg

City dwellers are more familiar with the nighthawk than with other family members, because the nighthawk has adapted to city life.  They’re the birds you see flying at dusk and into the early night, seeming never to rest and calling constantly while on the wing.  Peterson’s field guide describes the call as a nasal “preet.”  It is a loud, raspy, one-syllable call that is very familiar in most cities.  Goatsuckers all feed in the twilight at dusk and again just before dawn.

It is easy to identify a nighthawk, as you will see a bright, white band around its wings as soars overhead hunting for insects.  They are champion insect-eaters.   One study of nighthawks found that one bird’s stomach had 500 mosquitoes while another held 2,175 flying ants.

Unlike the whip-poor-will and Chuck-will’s-widow that prefer open forests and nest on the ground, the nighthawk has taken to nesting atop flat-roofed buildings covered with pea gravel. Most members of this family nest only once per year and produce two eggs.

Goatsuckers have special adaptations for catching insects on the fly--small “whiskers” surround their short beaks and wide mouths.  They are curved to produce a funnel-like trap leading to the birds’ mouths. 

Biologists are uncertain as to their function, although the whiskers clearly have something to do with eating.  One recent study suggested the whiskers might detect vibrations and be part of an avian echo-location system more commonly seen in bats and porpoises.

Your best chance of  seeing a Whip-poor-will is probably along a country road just after dark.  These birds often flock to roads to get either crop stones or salt or both, and you will see them flush as you approach.  I have seen this many times in northern Wisconsin and once or twice in Indiana.  You may also see one on a bright, moonlit night.  If you hear one singing nearby, you can orient by the song and watch for it to fly.

Whip-poor-wills and Chuck-will’s-widows like to sit on bare patches of ground to sing at night.  They seem to know the hard earth makes a better sound reflector than vegetation.  Many Whip-poor-wills seem to have discovered those asphalt parking spots at many campgrounds make excellent sounding boards.  If one happens to sing close to you some night, you will have a better sense of just how much volume these feathered boom boxes can produce.

The Chuck-will’s-widow is more of a southern bird, and according to Ind. Div. of Fish and Wildlife biologist John Castrale who reported a “Chuck” calling near his Lawrence County home, southern Indiana is the northern limit of its range.

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