Antrostomus carolensis

chuck will's widow

Chuck-will's-widow, photographed at Fort Jefferson, Garden Key, Dry Tortugas National Park, Monroe County, in April 2017.

At rest in the middle of the day Chuck-will's-widow, Antrostomus carolinensis, looks like anything but a bird. On the other hand, seeing one In flight, if you're lucky enough to catch one in flight, words like sleek and aerodynamic come to mind.

Chuck-will's-widow is a nightjar, a bird most active at dusk, at dawn and in the middle of the night. They'll fly about, foraging for bugs. Come morning and they'll seek refuge in a tree, in a shrub, in the grass for a day long nap.

They are built not to be seen, plumed perfectly to blend into the background. They have large, flat heads with a small, thin triangular bill. Though the bill is only half-inch long, Chuck-will's-widow can open its mouth as much as two inches. They are the largest of North American nightjars, with a body lenth that can exceed a foot and a wingspan of two feet.

The unusual name, Chuck-will's-widow, comes from its call. It sings its name, almost nonstop, at dusk and dawn and on nights when the moon is full or near full. It has one other nocturnal habit, this one on the dangerous side: it will sit along side and even in the middle of the pavement, too often becoming roadkill.

They are migratory birds through most of Florida, but they live year-round in the southern third of the state, from roughly north of Lake Okeechobee to the Keys. Their range extends north to Chesapeake Bay and the New Jersey coast, west to parts of Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. There have been reports of Chuck-will's-widow nesting in Canada's Maritime Provinces and even northern California. They winter in the Bahamas, through the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America and Colombia and Venezuela. Over the last century, Chuck-will's-widow gradually has expanded it range to the north and to the west.

In the summer breeding season, Chuck-will's-widow prefers open forests of either pines or oaks or mixed. In winter, they'll take to rain forests and subtropical woods. In Florida, they "nest" in dry hammocks. We put quote marks around nest because they really don't build nests. Instead, females will lay a clutch of two eggs directly on the ground in forested areas with a heavy understory.

There is a lot we don't know about this bird. One of the gaps is the role of males in rearing the offspring. The eggs will require three weeks of incubation before hatching; some sources we've read, including the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, says the chore of sitting on the eggs is shared between mates; others say it's done by females only and that females basically handle all rearing responsibilities. In any rate, the chicks will require a minimum of 17 days before they're ready to start flying. There's some evidence that females will return to the same "nesting" area year after year and may mate with the same male. In Florida, the migration seasons run late February and March, and August through September. Nesting season is between March and June.

Chuck-will's-widow will perch high or sometimes sit on the ground and launch out for bugs, usually a variety of beetles and moths. They'll also forage on the fly. Occasionally, they'll catch small birds, warblers and sparrows, and even bats, swallowing them whole.

They are members of Caprimulgidae, the nightjar family.

Fort Jefferson, Garden Key, Dry Tortugas National Park

Click on photo for larger image

Published by Wild South Florida, PO Box 7241, Delray Beach, FL 33482.

Photographs by David Sedore. Photographs are property of the publishers and may not be used without permission.