NIGHTJARS & ALLIES Caprimulgidae
The Nightjars are a family of night-flying aerial insectivores scattered around the world with most species concentrated in the tropics and particularly in open county. One of the most widespread Neotropical nightjars is the Pauraque (left). This individual is a rufous morph; other Pauraques can be gray. Their call can be dominant summer sound in tropical forest edge after sunset from the Rio Grande Valley of Texas to the Brazilian Pantanal. Indeed, the repetitive calls of the Pauraque, Whip-poor-will Caprimulgus vociferus, Chuck-will's-widow C. carolinensis, and Common Poorwill Phalaenoptilus nuttallii account for their English names. The latter three species are migratory to a greater or lesser extent, but many tropical nightjars are sedentary and mostly silent.
Sibley & Ahlquist (1990) and Sibley & Monroe (1990) split the family into two species: the typical nightjars Caprimulgidae and the "eared-nightjars" Eurostopodidae of southeast Asia to Australia. They also divided the Caprimulgidae into two subfamilies: the typical nightjars Caprimulginae and the nighthawks Chordeilinae. Cleere (1998, 1999) agrees with the two subfamily approach but almost ignores the biochemical work on "eared-nightjars," not even giving them subfamily status. The Sibley/Ahlquist/Monroe approach to these and related groups has been subject to criticism (see Randi et al. 1991, Mariaux & Braun 1996) and it seems to me that the best current solution is one family with three subfamilies.

I don't have photos of any "eared-nightjar" but two species of nighthawk are common in western North America: the Lesser Nighthawk (right) and the Common Nighthawk (below in a fine shot by Greg Lasley). In my marginal shot taken on a warm Arizona early evening, a male Lesser Nighthawk concludes his booming dive to court the sitting female. His white throat is puffed out by this exertion. During the hot days, both species sleep on perches, relying on their camouflage for protection. Common Nighthawks in open country can be conspicuous as they sit on fenceposts. I took a similar shot many-many years ago in New Mexico, but this portrait by Greg Lasley (below) from west Texas is a million times better:

Over 80% of the world's nightjars are "typical" nightjars but they also include some of the world's fanciest birds. In South America, males of the Swallow-tailed Uropsalis segmentata, Lyre-tailed U. lyra, and Long-trained Macropsalis creagra nightjars have incredibly long and spectacular tails. In Africa just south of the Sahara, the Pennant-winged Nightjar Macrodipteryx vexillarius has a striking black-and-white pennant streaming from the inner primaries, but the most outlandish of all is the male Standard-winged Nightjar M. longipennis whose second-to-innermost primary has evolved into a bare long shaft bearing a prominent "flag" at the end. It is almost unbelievable -- science fiction would never create such a ridiculous bird. I highly recommend that you see the photos and Toni Llobet's artwork that accompany Cleere (1999).

The remaining caprimulgids seem prosaic by comparison to the afore-mentioned nightjars (although it was only the males that had the standards, pennants, and streaming tails), but most are elusive and mysterious, and will capture the imagination of real birders. Common Poorwills here where I live in coastal California undergo torpor during the winter by "wake up" to sing on warm evenings, even around Christmas. It is the only bird known to hibernate in the wild, or at least come close to it. I've been very impressed by the Freckled C. tristigma of tropical Africa and the Blackish Nightjar of South America (above and right). Both are so well camouflaged that they can sit quietly on a bare rock in the open all day, blending in perfectly to the background. The nesting female (above left) was hard to spot even when I knew exactly where her nest was (she is warming two eggs in this shot from Amazonian Brazil). Indeed, both species have laid eggs right on bare rock (Cleere 1999). Once at La Selva Lodge in tropical Ecuador, an afternoon rainstorm darkened the skies and forced us indoors. The bird flying (above right) must have thought it was dusk and was chasing insects in the rain; I took this (marginal) photo from the dining room verandah.

One rarely comes upon the forest nightjars during the day but on my first trip to Bharatpur, India, we spotted this Jungle Nightjar (left) sleeping on a tree limb. Similar luck during a Ben King tour in Java produced a limb-roosting Salvadori's Nightjar C. pulchellus, one of the world's little-known species. Others have been taped-in at night, including the equally obscure Bates's Nightjar C. batesi in Gabon. Thanks to the tapes and knowledge of Ian Sinclair & Patrice Christy, we all watched this mysterious caprimulgid call from an odd potoo-like stance.

Cleere (1999) revisits the old story, dating back to Aristotle, that earned these birds the colloquial term "goatsuckers:"

The European Nightjar is one of the most widespread ... nightjars. With an entirely insectivorous diet, it tends to feed in areas with a good food supply; in the past, this often meant foraging around livestock, including goats, especially in places where the animals had been corralled for the night. During the summer, it would not be uncommon for at least some of the livestock to be in breeding condition or have newly born offspring, and females would therefore often have milk dripping from their teats. The shepherds and country people, seeing the shadowy nightjars around their animals at dusk and noticing the milk early in the morning, put the two circumstances together and believed that the birds were sucking milk during the night and that, as a result, their animals would eventually be sucked dry and go blind.
Superstitious beliefs about caprimulgids abound around the world. In parts of the southeast U.S., it was once thought that the number of times a Whip-poor-will sang in succession indicated the number of years a man would remain a bachelor. In Sulawesi, the Satanic or Diabolical Nightjar Eurostopodus diabolicus (until recently known only from a single 1931 specimen) was named for the local belief that the call it made at night was the sound of it pulling out people's eyes!

And with that story, we send you off into the night, seeking your own nightjars....

Photos: The Pauraque Nyctidromus albicollis was photographed near the forest edge in the Serra das Araras, Brazil, in Aug 1999. The courting Lesser NighthawksChordeiles acutipennis were near Weldon, Arizona, in May 1983. Greg W. Lasley took the Common Nighthawk C. minor portrait southwest of Marfa, west Texas, on 31 July 1997. The nesting Blackish Nightjar Caprimulgus nigrescens was at Rio Cristalino Lodge, central Brazil, in Aug 1999; the one in flight was at La Selva Lodge, Ecuador, in Apr 1992. The Jungle Nightjar C. indicus was at Bharatpur, India, on 18 Aug 1978. All photos © 2000 D. Roberson, except the Common Nighthawk which is © 2000 Greg W. Lasley and used with permission; all rights reserved.

Bibliographic note:

Family Book
Cleere, Nigel. Illustrated by Dave Nurney. 1998. Nightjars: A Guide to the Nightjars, Nighthawks, and their Relatives. Pica Press, London [co-published in U.S. by Yale Univ. Press, New Haven CT]

At first glance this is an extremely attractive book covering the nightjars plus potoos, frogmouths, and owlet-nightjars. In the usual Pica Press format it has a short introduction, a sheaf of color plates illustrating all species, and then the bulk of the book is devoted to detailed species account and range maps. Much emphasis goes into lengthy descriptions and a discussion of field identification and, where known, vocalizations [it was published with a separately purchased CD]. Alas, the artwork of birds I know -- although attractive -- doesn't look much like them [e.g., Common Poorwill much to pale gray rather than rich brown-gray; Pauraque next to Poorwill is way too small; perched nighthawks much too "front-loaded"]. When I started looking up stuff I knew in the text, I found numerous errors and/or omissions. The maps look wonderfully detailed and would lead one to believe they are thus accurate, when, in fact, they are among the worst maps in any family book. The arizonae race of Whip-poor-will is shown nesting throughout California north to Pt. Reyes (!), and the nominate eastern race “wintering” in southern California and Arizona. In truth, Whip-poor-wills of the southwestern race summer on a very few isolated mountains in southern California and are an extremely rare vagrant north of these southwestern mountains, and there is only one super-vagrant record of a banded bird “thought” to be the nominate race in all of California. Some or all of the ranges of at least four nightjars in Gabon are omitted (Mozambique C. fossii, Freckled C. tristigma, Black-shouldered C. nigriscapularis, and Bates's C. batesi nightjars; I’ve seen them all there). The pertinent information is in print (e.g., Sargeant 1993, Christy & Clarke 1994) but was overlooked. If one cannot trust accounts of birds that one knows, how can the reader rely on statements about birds he doesn't know?
    The unbelievably poor Whip-poor-will map was fixed by the time Cleere (1999) wrote the nightjar account for the HBW series, but some of the other errors persist in that work as well.
    We thus still lack an authoritative text on these families, but such a book is in the works in the Oxford Press series, as I understand it. It is said to be authored by David Holyoak who did such a nice job with the Frogmouths and Owlet-Nightjars in the Handbook of the Birds of the World, Vol. 5.
Literature cited:
Cleere, N. 1999. Family Caprimulgidae (Nightjars) in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., & Sargatal, J., eds. Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 5. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.

Christy, P., and W. Clarke. 1994. Guide des Oiseaux de la Réserve de la Lopé. Écofac, Libreville, Gabon.

Mariaux, J., and M. J. Braun. 1996. A molecular phylogenetic survey of the nightjars and allies (Caprimulgiformes) with special emphasis on the potoos (Nyctibiidae). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 6: 228-244.

Randi, E., G. Fusco., R. Lorenzini, and F. Spina. 1991. Allozyme divergence and phylogenetic relationships within the Strigiformes. Condor 93: 295-301.

Sargeant, D. 1993. A Birders Guide to Gabon, West Africa. D. E. Sargeant, London.

Sibley, C. G., and J. E. Ahlquist. 1990. Phylogeny and Classification of Birds: A Study in Molecular Evolution. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.

Sibley, C. G., and B. L. Monroe, Jr. 1990. Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.



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