Common PoorwillPhalaenoptilus nuttallii

adult male dark morph
Rick and Nora Bowers/VIREO
adult male light morph
Rick and Nora Bowers/VIREO
adult (defensive display)
Rick and Nora Bowers/VIREO

Family

Description

In dry hills of the west, a soft whistled poor-will carries across the slopes on moonlit nights. Drivers may spot the Poorwill itself sitting on a dirt road, its eyes reflecting orange in the headlights, before it flits off into the darkness. This species is famous as the first known hibernating bird: In cool weather it may enter a torpid state, with lowered body temperature, heartbeat, and rate of breathing, for days or even weeks at a time. Science discovered this in the 1940s, but apparently the Hopi people knew it long before that: their name for the Poorwill means

Habitat

Dry hills, open brush. Various kinds of open dry terrain at low elevation in the west, including rocky mesas with scattered shrubs, washes and hills in Sonoran desert, scrubby areas in dry open pine forest. May be found in open grassland, but usually only around rocky outcrops.

Feeding Diet

Insects. Feeds mainly on night-flying insects, especially moths and beetles, also some grasshoppers, flies, and others. Insects up to one and a half inches long can be swallowed whole.

Feeding Behavior

Forages mostly by sitting on the ground or on a low perch and making short flights upward to catch passing insects. Occasionally forages in longer, sustained flights. Does most foraging at dawn and dusk or on moonlit nights. Sometimes picks up insects (and possibly spiders) from ground.

Nesting

Male calls at night in spring to defend territory and to attract a mate. Nest site is on ground, on bare open soil, rock, or gravel, sometimes on dead leaves or pine needles. Often shaded by a shrub or overhanging rock, and sometimes in secluded rock shelter. No nest built, although bird may make a slight scrape in soil. Same site may be used more than one year. Eggs: 2. White, sometimes with a few spots. Incubation is by both parents, 20-21 days. Young: Both parents feed young, by regurgitating insects. If nest site is disturbed, parents can move either the eggs or young to a new location. Downy young can move on their own by hopping or somersaulting across the ground. Age of young at first flight 20-23 days. May raise 2 broods per year.

Eggs

2. White, sometimes with a few spots. Incubation is by both parents, 20-21 days. Young: Both parents feed young, by regurgitating insects. If nest site is disturbed, parents can move either the eggs or young to a new location. Downy young can move on their own by hopping or somersaulting across the ground. Age of young at first flight 20-23 days. May raise 2 broods per year.

Young

Both parents feed young, by regurgitating insects. If nest site is disturbed, parents can move either the eggs or young to a new location. Downy young can move on their own by hopping or somersaulting across the ground. Age of young at first flight 20-23 days. May raise 2 broods per year.

Conservation

Still widespread, and numbers probably stable.

Range

Departs from northern part of breeding range in fall; migratory route and winter range of these birds not well known. In southwest, may be present all year, remaining torpid in cooler weather.

Listen

song

Similar Species

adult

Chuck-will's-widow

The rich, throaty chant of the Chuck-will's-widow, singing its name, echoes through southern woodlands on summer nights. By day, the bird is seldom detected as it rests on horizontal tree limbs or on the ground, where its cryptic dead-leaf pattern offers good camouflage. If disturbed, it flaps away on silent wings, sometimes giving low clucking calls in protest.

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Buff-collared Nightjar

Birders hearing it for the first time may have trouble believing that the Buff-collared Nightjar is a relative of the Whip-poor-will. Staccato, unbirdlike, the call sounds like the voice of an insect: a very large insect, perhaps, audible up to half a mile away over the dry hills at night. First found north of the Mexican border in 1958, this bird now spends the summer in several canyons in southern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico.

adult

Eastern Whip-poor-will

Often heard but seldom observed, the Whip-poor-will chants its name on summer nights in eastern woods. The song may seem to go on endlessly; a patient observer once counted 1,088 whip-poor-wills given rapidly without a break. By day, the bird sleeps on the forest floor, or on a horizontal log or branch. This bird and the Mexican Whip-poor-will of the southwest were considered to belong to the same species until recently.

adult male Western

Common Nighthawk

This widespread and familiar bird may hunt by day or night, catching flying insects in the air. Its bounding, erratic flight and angular wings make it unmistakable except in the southwest and in Florida, where two other types of nighthawks occur. Originally nesting on open ground, Common Nighthawks have learned to nest on flat gravel roofs; their nasal cries and

adult (gray morph) more common in US

Common Pauraque

After sunset, in the brushy woods of southern Texas, a hoarse wheezing whistle is heard from here and there in the undergrowth. As dusk settles in, a silhouetted bird flutters and glides silently through the clearings. This is the Pauraque, a common tropical nightjar. If disturbed by day at its resting place in dense thickets, it flutters away on a zigzag course, showing white flashes in the wings and tail.

Vireo

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