Stillwater News Press

May 10, 2014

Outdoor Almanac: The Nightjars

By Dwayne Elmore
Stillwater News Press

STILLWATER, Okla. — If you have been outdoors at dusk during the past week, you have likely heard a repetitive call from a bird called a chuck-will’s-widow.

This cryptic species spends the day roosting in leaf litter, but as light fades, they begin to call incessantly. Fortunately, the call is a pleasant addition to late dinners on the deck.

The chuck-will’s-widow is onomatopoeic, as it is named for the three-note call it makes. Similar to other “nightjars,” it is primarily active at night, feeding on flying insects.

There are three other species of nightjars found in Oklahoma, including the common poorwill, the whip-poor-will and the common nighthawk. But it is the chuck-will’s-widow that is most commonly heard in the central portion of the state.

Chuck-will’s-widows spend the winter in Central and South America and their arrival in May signals summer is upon us. Though they are often heard calling from dry oak forests throughout much of Oklahoma, they are seldom seen. Occasionally they sit on roadsides at night and their reflective eyes betray their presence to oncoming drivers.

Very rarely they are flushed from the forest floor during the day, although they typically will not fly unless approached closely, which provides a startle. The similar common nighthawk is much more likely to be seen as they often roost on top of wooden fence posts in open country and sometimes forage for insects early or late in the day.

The smaller common poorwill is found in western Oklahoma shrublands.  Its two-note call is described as “poor will.” In eastern Oklahoma, the whip-poor-will can occasionally be found in dense forests uttering a three-note call similar to the chuck-will’s widow.  

While rarely observed, the nightjars are mysterious additions to the fauna of Oklahoma that provide seasonal charm to our warm summer nights.