Article for March -April 2012
For Wildlife Watchers: Chuck-Will's-Widow
by Rob Simbeck
photograph by Stewart Grinton
Chuck-will's-widows do well in the open pine savannas once common in South Carolina.
The earth's shadow is a passageway to magic. Each evening, we roll slowly through the threshold of twilight into a wonderland unveiled as the sun is occulted by the planet under our feet. There we can see the full majesty of the universe, studded with distant stars, rent by the Milky Way, animated by the constellations. And it is there that we are awakened to the creatures of the night. From moths to possums, bats to fireflies, skunks to screech owls, they offer another world of sights and sounds, quirks and habits.
Some are known far more by sound than sight. Owls are in that category, as are the nightjars, nocturnal birds best known for the whip-poor-will, whose incessant nighttime call became a symbol of profound loneliness thanks to the hillbilly Shakespeare, Hank Williams Sr. We sometimes see the whip-poor-will’s cousin, the nighthawk, snatching moths on the fly in the halo of lights like those in shopping center parking lots.
But fewer of us are familiar with another look-alike relative, the chuck-will's-widow. Not quite the size of a pigeon, and a little larger than the whip-poor-will, for which it is sometimes mistaken, the chuck-will's-widow is mottled brown, gray, black and white, attractive and easily camouflaged. It has a white collar, a brown throat and a dark brown breast patch, as well as long, pointed wings, a very small bill and large black eyes. Like its nightjar cousins (the "jar" refers to the group's sometimes-jarring calls), the chuck-will's-widow perches motionless during the day, typically sitting lengthwise on a low horizontal branch.
Description: Dappled brown, about the size of a pigeon, with a call that mimics its name.
Range and Habitat: Open pine forests and native grasslands, in pockets throughout the Southeast.
Reproduction: Mid-May. Lays two eggs on the ground, incubating for three weeks. Young fledge at seventeen days.
Viewing Tips: Listen for the distinctive call. They generally spend the day resting on low branches. They are present at Congaree National Park, within the ACE Basin National Wildlife Refuge, and at Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve and other DNR-managed properties.
"They blend in so perfectly," says S.C. Department of Natural Resources wildlife technician Lex Glover, "that they usually look like nothing more than a slight rise on the limb."
They can sometimes be spotted before daylight along rural roadways as their eyes glow orange in the reflected shine of headlights, or in open woods and adjacent clearings, "maneuvering a few feet off the ground, flying like swallows, looking for insects," according to Glover. They eat moths, beetles and winged ants, flying with what has been described as "buoyant, silent flight," their wide mouths gaping.
Hearing them is not much of a problem where they are present.
"They used to be common in my neighborhood," says Glover, "and I'd wake up in the middle of the night because they'd be in my front yard, calling."
The males will call through the night, announcing territory and seeking females, and while the call resembles that of the whip-poor-will, Glover offers this guide for telling them apart: "The chuck-will's-widow's is a much slower call, and you don't always hear the chuck. Sometimes it's just the will's-widow. It's almost a lazier version of the whip-poor-will, who sounds like he’s calling whip-poor-WEEL after ten cups of coffee."
Males are more obvious during courtship, which begins after they return from wintering. Their winter range extends from southern Florida to northern South America.
"The bulk of them seem to come back in April," says Glover, "and mating seems to take place in mid-May, since I've found most of the nests I've come across in early June." Studies indicate they are likely to return to the same nesting area year after year.
Males will chase each other, making a growling sound, before beginning courtship displays. They strut for the females, dropping their wings and spreading their tail feathers, their bodies jerking as they puff up and call.
The female nests on dead leaves or bare ground and lays two creamy white eggs with brown and purple spots, incubating them for about three weeks. The young fledge at about seventeen days.
The nightjars are also referred to as "goatsuckers," because of the mistaken belief that they suck milk from goats. It is even part of the Linnean name — Caprimulgus is Latin for "goatsucker." In reality, their presence around goats and other domestic animals is attributable to the insects also drawn to such animals.
There are about seventy species worldwide in the subfamily Caprimulginae, and another nine in the Chordeilinae family, which includes the new-world nighthawks. Caprimulgus carolinensis, the chuck-will's-widow, is one of more than sixty species of the genus found from Missouri to Madagascar. Like that of many creatures, from spiders to toads, snails to salamanders, its species name refers to the Carolinas.
Chuck-will's-widows do well in the open pine savannas once common in South Carolina, and they are found in pockets from Texas to Maryland, and Nebraska to Florida. They are still fairly common in areas like the Congaree National Park, "particularly on the upland bluff in the pine woods," says Glover, or in the ACE Basin National Wildlife Refuge. Whip-poor-wills, on the other hand, are more likely to be found in and around open fields, as they favor early successional growth.
The destruction of their preferred habitat is a major factor in what is recognized as a long-term decline in the numbers of chuck-will's-widows, as is the fact that they are ground-nesting birds, vulnerable to dogs, cats and the growing numbers of coyotes in the state. There are reports of females carrying eggs and newly hatched young to nearby sites in the face of threats to either, but camouflage is their primary defense. Breeding surveys seem to indicate a steady decline of about 1.8 percent a year since the mid-1960s.
"I haven't seen or heard them where I live in six or eight years," says Glover, "and overall I'm probably seeing about half the number that I did ten years ago. It's a bird that seems to have been hit pretty hard."
Where we live, the last whip-poor-wills and chuck-will's-widows disappeared about a dozen years ago as developments replaced most of the fields and woods in the area. With them went another little piece of the wonder that accompanies nights spent watching and listening from the world's back porch, that place where the earth's shadow brings to life creatures that fewer and fewer of us are getting the chance to appreciate.
Rob Simbeck is an award-winning freelance writer living in Nashville, Tennessee.
© 2012 South Carolina Wildlife Magazine, March - April 2012 - www.scwildlife.com