The Chuck-Will’s-Widow (Caprimulgus carolinensis) is the largest Nightjar in North America. It has been named after its loud continuous, whistled “chuck-will’s-widow” song that is often heard at night. To a lesser extent it is also sometimes referred to as chuckwuts-widow – a name that is also derived from the rhythm of this bird’s calls.
It belongs to a family known as Caprimulgriformes – which literally means “goatsuckers,” as they were once believed to drink a nanny goat’s milk during the night.
They are mostly found in southeastern United States. These birds are extremely shy and will generally flush upon approach (except when nesting).
Chuck-will’s-widows are nocturnal (active at night) and are often observed flying low over the ground as they catch insects at night.
Alternate (Global) Names
Czech: Lelek karolinský … Danish: Carolinanatravn … Dutch: Chuck Will’s Widow, Chuck-will’s-widow … German: Carolinanachtschwalbe, Carolina-Nachtschwalbe, Carolinanachtsschwalbe … English: Carolina Chuckwill, Carolina Chuck-Will’s-Widow, Chick-will’s-widow, Chuch Will’s Widow, Chuck Will’s Widow, Chuck-will’s Widow, Chuck-will’s-widow, Twixt-hell-and-the-white-oak … Estonian: suur-öösorr … Finnish: Männikkökehrääjä … French: Engoulevent de Caroline … Haitian Creole French: Petonvwa Karolin … Italian: Succiacapre della Carolina … Japanese: chakkuuiruyotaka, chiyakkuuiruyotaka … Latin: Antrostomus carolinensis, Caprimulgus carolinensis … Norwegian: Karolinanattravn … Polish: lelek karolinski, lelek karoli?ski … Russian: ??????????? ??????? … Slovak: lelek vido … Spanish: Chotacabra Americana, chotacabras carolinense, Chotacabras de la Carolina, Chotacabras de Paso, Don Juan, Don Juán, Guabairo Americano, Guabairo Mayor, Guardacaminos de Carolina, Pocoyo de Carolina, Pucuyo viudo, tapacamino carolinense, Tapacamino de Carolina, Tapacaminos Carolinense … Swedish: Karolinanattskärra
Distribution / Range
The Chuck-Will’s-Widows spend the summer (breeding season) in the southeastern United States; and have been noted to expand their breeding range in the Eastern United States in recent years.
They migrate south to winter in Mexico, the West Indies, Central America and northwestern South America. Some also overwinter in Florida.
They are native to the following countries:
Anguilla; Antigua and Barbuda; Aruba; Bahamas; Barbados; Belize; Canada; Cayman Islands; Colombia; Costa Rica; Cuba; Dominica; Dominican Republic; El Salvador; French Guiana; Guadeloupe; Guatemala; Guyana; Haiti; Honduras; Martinique; Mexico; Montserrat; Netherlands Antilles; Nicaragua; Panama; Puerto Rico; Saint Kitts and Nevis; Saint Lucia; Saint Vincent and the Grenadines; Suriname; Turks and Caicos Islands; United States; Venezuela; Virgin Islands, British; Virgin Islands, U.S.
They are vagrants to:
- Saint Pierre and Miquelon – a group of small islands in the North Atlantic Ocean, south of the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador.
- Possibly Jamaica
They are usually found near swamps, rocky uplands, and dry woodlands, including conifer, deciduous and mixed forests – often near streams. They favor woodlands with a mix of oak and pine trees. They have not adapted to urban habitats.
The Chuck-will’s-widows are perfectly camouflaged by their dappled brown plumage that blends in perfectly to their woodland habitat. They are most easily located by their rolling, seemingly endless calls made at dusk, pre-dawn and at night. They are often spotted at night, sitting on the road or roadside; or at dusk gliding over trees hunting for prey. During the day, they are mostly found resting motionless on the ground or perching on a horizontal branch.
The Chuck-Will’s-Widow is a large nightjar that averages 28 – 33 cm (11 – 13 inches) in length with a wingspan of 62 cm (25 inch). It has a huge flat head, very short bill, long pointed wings, a long rounded tail, and large black eyes.
The plumage is mottled buff-brown overall, with reddish-brown feathers that are lined with black, and brown and white patterning on the head and otherwise dark chest. It has a white collar that contrasts with the buff-brown throat and darker chest. There are bold black spots on the back and shoulders.
The adult male can be identified by the white patch below the black throat. He has a brown and black barred tail except the outer tail feathers are white tipped with buff (the female’s tail lacks white).
The adult female has a buff-colored patch below the throat. Her tail is entirely brown barred with black.
They have special physical adaptations that facilitate foraging at night and catching prey in mid-air, for example:
- The beak has evolved to be much wider than it is long, and it opens wide – both vertically as well as horizontally. The resulting big gaping mouth allows it to more easily scoop up insects in flight.
- Its large eyes are placed on each side of the head (laterally) – which significantly increases its visual field.
- A reflective membrane behind the retina (tapetum) enhances its vision at night by augmenting the light-gathering ability of its eyes.
- They also have forward-facing whiskers that may either help them funnel food into the mouth or protect the eyes.
The Chuck-will’s-widow is the largest of all North American nightjars, which is helpful when differentiating them from other nightjars. However, there are several that it closely resembles.
The Whip-poor-will is significantly smaller and greyer. It has a shorter tail and its outer tail feathers have white tips that are visible when the tail is spread. (The Chuck-will’s-widows only have white on the inner half of these tail feathers, with the tail appearing much less white.)
The Common Pauraque of South Texas can also be identified by its prominent white on the outer tail feathers and white wing pattern.
The Common Nighthawk has a white throat and white bars on the wings that are visible in flight. The plumage is mostly grey – compared to the mostly brown coloration of the Chuck-will’s-widow.
At rest, the wings of the Common Poorwill extend to the tail.
Diet / Feeding
The nocturnal Chuck-Will’s-Widows are most active, and mostly feed, near dawn and dusk (crepuscular – active during the twilight).
The Feeding Habits of Nightjars / Nighthawks
Nesting / Breeding
The female lays her eggs on a patch of dead leaves on the ground. The average clutch consists of two pinkish eggs with brown and lavender spots. She alone incubates them and is well camouflaged in the foliage. She usually remains on the nest until she feels the nest is threatened by a predator — in which case, she will fly away 3 meters or 10 feet away from the nest and perform a very realistic “broken wing” display until the potential predator has been lead away from the nest.
Song / Vocalization
They are named for their repetitive, loud, whistled “chuck-will’s-widow” calls that are often heard at night. The first note is often inaudible, followed by a vibrating middle note between two shorter notes, with a mostly constant pitch.