Is it a whipporwill, or a Chuck Will's Widow?

By Jay V. Huner
Journal Correspondent

Who hasn't heard a "whip-poor-will" in the piney woods? Well, for the most part, what you heard was most likely a Chuck-will's-widow calling his name almost incessantly through the night from mid-spring into mid-summer. Yes, there is a bird called a Whip-poor-will which calls his name the same way his big cousin the Chuck-will's-widow calls his name. But, Whip-poor-wills pass through our piney woods region in the spring on the way to its more northerly breeding grounds and again in the fall back to its wintering grounds in Latin America.

Unless you are pretty close to a calling Chuck-will's-widow, you may miss the "chuck" component of its call complicating its identification. And, on top of that, some Whip-poor-wills do winter in the coastal forest along the northern Gulf of Mexico, occasionally calling at dusk.

The poor-wills and their cousin the night-hawks have been called "goatsuckers" since earliest times. Superstitious goat herders observed the ghostly, long winged birds flying closely around their flocks at dusk and assumed that they were landing to suckle from the udders of nanny goats. Actually, they were feeding on insects around the goats.

Ornithologists refer to goatsuckers by a more formal common name - Nightjars. The scientific name for this unique family of birds is Caprimulgiformes which relates to the goat (Capri) sucking myth.

The Chuck-will's-widow is the largest North American goatsucker with long, swept back wings and long tails and tiny bills and huge mouths. Rictal Bristles on either side of the mouth's gape ensure successful trapping of flying insect prey and an occasional small bird like a hummingbird or sparrow!

Birds that feed on flying insects use two strategies to catch their prey. They may perch near an open area and swoop down to catch passing insects. Or, they may fly continuously, maneuvering to "hawk" insects. This behavior is sometimes seen around street lights and stadium lights. Chuck-will's-widows use both methods to catch their food.

Base color of all goatsuckers is warm brown with intricately patterned, dappled feathers that camouflage them when resting on the ground or a horizontal branch. When a Chuck-will's-widow flies away, one can sometimes see some white feathers on the inner half of the tail. Whip-poor-wills have white tipped tails that are clearly visible when its tail is spread in flight.

Chuck-will's-widows breed in pine, oak-hickory, and other forest in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic states. They do not make a nest, per se. Rather, they lay their 1-4 eggs on the ground among dead leaves, pine needles or even bare ground. The incubating and brooding birds are literally invisible and fly only when you are about to step on them.

All poor-wills have eyes that gleam pink or orange in artificial light like headlights. They can be found on rural roads, usually gravel, after dark. This road sitting habit is reflected in their Spanish common name - tapacaminos. Don't expect to see the birds walking about as their legs and feet are very poorly developed.

Our Common Night-hawk is almost as interesting as our Chuck-will's-widow and can often be found during the day but that's a topic for another day.

Jay V. Huner
Louisiana Ecrevisse
428 Hickory Hill Drive
Boyce, LA 71409
318-793-5529 -