OWLET-NIGHTJARS Aegothelidae
The Owlet-Nightjars are a small group of nocturnal birds found only in Australasia, and all are in the same genus (Aegotheles). One species is fairly widespread in open country of Australia and southern New Guinea, the Australian Owlet-Nightjar (left). This particular individual was found day-roosting in mallee country of northern Victoria, Australia, but I've seen another near dusk when flushed from a roost hole. In this respect the owlet-nightjars remind me of the owl genus Otus, the scops-owls and screech-owls. Like those owls, these species seem to be actually quite common but very nocturnal. If found at all within special directions or tapes, they are located at day-roosts. But it is remarkable to me that I've found three (3) day-roosting owlet-nightjars (one Australian, two Mountains) in three visits to Australia & New Guinea, but it is just "time in the field."
On birding trips, one is in the field all day, every day, and one eventually runs into day-roosting night birds IF those species are common. Similarly, I found three (3) day-roosting scops-owls on a brief visit to Borneo/Sumatra/Java. My two day-roosting owlet-nightjars discovered in New Guinea were both Mountain Owlet-Nightjars (right; great photo by Will Betz of a day-roosting individual he located). Note how the gray-patterned plumage of both species shown on this page recall scops-owls or screech-owls. My New Guinea finds also illustrated another parallel: the bird seen in Papua New Guinea was gray (as in Will Betz's photo) but the one found in a tangle at high elevation in the Arfak Mountains, Irian Jaya, was red. Thus, like many scops-owls and Eastern Screech-Owl O. asio, some owlet-nightjars have red and gray color morphs. And, like the owls, they nest in hollows and stumps, laying eggs on the bare floor.

Sibley & Monroe (1990) place the owlet-nightjars between the owls and the frogmouths, presumably on biochemical as well as other evidence, which makes eminently good sense given their appearance. One would suspect the family arose in New Guinea since 6 of the 8 extant species occur there, and at least three are specialized in the higher mountains (Mountain, Archbold's A. archboldi, and the exquisitely named Feline Owlet-Nightjar A. insignis). One species (Moluccan A. crinifrons) occurs on Halmahera and Bacan in the Moluccas. The eighth species has apparently just been rediscovered after it had been thought to be extinct for 120 years: the New Caledonian Owlet-Nightjar A. savesi, details on-line are found here.

Photos: The Australian Owlet-Nightjar Aegotheles cristatus was in Wyperfeld Nat'l Park, Australia, on 11 Nov 1983. Will Betz photographed the Mountain Owlet-Nightjar A. albertisi high in the mountains (8000' elev.) of the Huon Peninsula, Papua New Guinea, in July 1997. Photos © D. Roberson and Will Betz, respectively.

Bibliographic note

Family book: Rating HH
Cleere, Nigel. 1998. Nightjars: A Guide to the Nightjars, Nighthawks, and Their Relatives. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.

This book is one in a series of cookie-cutter "bird family" books from Yale, Pica Press, etc. They appear to be rather thrown together, and not nearly as well-researched as the Princeton series or the even better Oxford Univ. Press series. There are a set of color plates of all species up front (in "field guide"-like poses) and the main text follows covering detailed descriptions, some brief information on distribution and habitat, some superficial examination of geographic variation, a better text on voice, and some measurements and a list of some references. There is also a map for each species. This book was really meant to be a book on Caprimuligidae; adding potoos, frogmouths, owlet-nightjars, and the Oilbird seems to have been an afterthought.
   In looking at the map and texts of species of nightjars that I knew, this was one of the worst of the family books. The maps have more egregious errors for Africa and North America that can be possibly accepted in this type of work. The artwork is okay but none of the birds I knew well came across accurately. This holds true for the owlet-nightjars; the paintings don't look all that much like the photos of the live birds shown above.
   There is apparently a CD ROM with caprimulgid vocalizations -- which would be a welcome addition -- but none came with the copy of this book that I purchased. Perhaps it must be purchased separately, but if so, I was unaware of it until months later. I don't know if the CD has owlet-nightjars on it or not.
   A work like this is much needed, but I fear this inadequate volume will corner the market for some time.
Other literature cited:
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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Page created 7 May 1999