This Texas bird hollers its name every evening.
The moon rises over a clear-cut field to the east. The June heat has dissipated with the setting sun, but the humidity lingers. The evening is calm, with little noise other than the intermittent chirping of crickets and the croaking of green tree frogs in a distant pond.
Suddenly, from a patch of oak and pines to the west comes a crisp, loud cry: “Chuck-will’s-widow!”
A harbinger of twilight and a welcome evening resident of many Texas woods, the chuck-will’s-widow is a seldom-seen but oft-heard nightjar throughout most of Texas. Patterned like the woods it inhabits, the plumage of this foot-long bird is brown with black spots and streaks to blend in with the forest floor, where it nests, or a tree branch, where it perches to sing and rest.
The name “chuck-will’s-widow” is an onomatopoeia — a word for a sound that, when pronounced, recites the sound itself. In Texas, other such birds include the bobwhite, willet and whip-poor-will. In many places, the chuck-will’s-widow is mistakenly called a whip-poor-will.
The eastern whip-poor-will, a similar species, is an equally gifted nighttime songster. While eastern whip-poor-wills may be heard in south-central and eastern Texas during spring months, they do not breed in the state like the chuck-will’s-widow and are less abundant where the species overlap.
Chuck-will’s-widows can be encountered from March until October; they breed mostly in the eastern part of the state and can be found as far west as the Edwards Plateau and north to the eastern Panhandle. Breeding includes no fancy nest building; in fact, a chuck-will’s-widow mother will lay two eggs, or as many as four, on the bare ground in April and incubate for 20 days, protecting her clutch with her impressive camouflage plumage.
Pairs croak when disturbed during the day and fly erratically for short distances through the woods after flushing, grunting in annoyance. After October, chuck-will’s-widows join many birds in a migration to the tropics and spend colder months anywhere between the Texas Gulf Coast and South America.
Chuck-will’s-widows and eastern whip-poor-wills are from a group of birds called nightjars, aerial insectivores that typically feed on insects on the wing at dusk and dawn. Chuck-will’s-widows feed by flying low over open areas such as woodland edges and canopy gaps and funneling insects into their massive gape using bristly feathers adjacent to the bill.
The impressive gape of nightjars led folks as far back as Aristotle to believe they fed on the udders of goats at night, causing blindness in the goats, hence the colloquial term “goatsucker.” However, goat owners in Texas need not fear nightjars; the chuck-will’s-widow diet consists of almost entirely insects and the occasional songbird or bat.
Alan Murphy | Minden
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