By Jared Teutsch, Executive Director
A bird that is heard far more often than seen, the Chuck-will’s-widow’s distinctive call may be heard singing its name at dusk across the Georgia landscape on spring and summer evenings. Very little is known about this elusive, nocturnal species, in part, because they are notoriously difficult to locate. Their beautiful, mottled brown plumage provides perfect camouflage as they roost during daylight hours amongst dried leaves and tree branches. Georgia Audubon hopes to help fill in some of the data gaps for this near-threatened species and create more suitable habitat to help these birds, and, as such, we have selected the Chuck-will’s-widow as our next species of concern.
Georgia’s birds face a number of challenges, ranging from habitat loss and degradation, increased use of pesticides, climate change, and more. Through our Species of Concern program, every two years, we select a new focal species to draw attention to these issues and to educate the public about simple steps we can all take to protect Georgia’s birds. Beginning in 2023, Georgia Audubon will direct our resources and expertise to the Chuck-will’s-widow —restoring native habitat, assisting with species-specific research, and engaging the public to help us better understand statewide population numbers and migratory behavior.
Chuck-will’s-widows, or “Chuck’s”, are one of three species of nightjars found in Georgia. Nightjars are medium-sized nocturnal birds characterized by long wings, short legs, and very short bills. Common Nighthawks and Whip-poor-wills are the two other nightjar species found in Georgia. Chucks spend the breeding season in Georgia and then migrate to the lowland forests of the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central America during winter.
Active at dawn, dusk, and on bright nights, Chucks fly low over the ground in search of insects, like moths and beetles, which they catch in their enormous, oversized mouths. Unlike owls which have acute hearing, Chucks hunt by sight in the dark. Their oversized eyes help them see insects in low light and their gigantic mouths provide some margin for error. A specialized anatomical feature, called rictal bristles, serves as a sensory mechanism allowing them to scoop up insects in the dark. Their mouths are so large, in fact, that on occasion these birds have been known to gulp down larger prey, like songbirds or bats.
Sadly, since insects make up such a large portion of their diet, Chucks are also extremely susceptible to pesticides. They also fall prey to building collisions during their nighttime hunting runs and can even be victims of run-ins with vehicles since Chucks and other nightjar species often sit on the bare, open ground.
“There is a lot of folklore and legend surrounding the Chuck-will’s-widows because they are bizarre looking birds and so little is known about them,” says Adam Betuel, director of conservation. Chucks belong to a family of birds with the folk name ‘goatsuckers.’ The family name, Caprimulgidae, literally means ‘milker of goats’, and, since these birds were often found near livestock, many folks believed these birds milked goats with their giant mouths each night. The reality is that livestock attract insects, which are the Chucks preferred food source; however, if you ever have a chance to see one of these birds up close you can understand where this myth originated.
Chucks-will’s-widows may be found in a number of different habitats in Georgia, from grassy areas to forests to timber stands. Despite their widespread nature across the state, little is known about what attracts them to various habitats. Learning what these birds are keying in on in their habitats is a big key to figuring out how to make Georgia more hospitable for them. Over the next few years, Georgia Audubon, in collaboration with multiple partners, hopes to help fill in some of the gaps about this species.
Last summer, in partnership with Clark Rushing, assistant professor in the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources at the University of Georgia, and his lab students, Georgia Audubon began assisting with radio tracking and GPS tagging Chuck-will’s-widows to learn more about the breeding habits of this species, their habitat preferences, as well as where these birds go in the winter months. This work will continue next year when these birds return to Georgia for the breeding season.
“While there is still much to learn about this species and the threats they face, we know that they rely on healthy insect populations. Our habitat restoration work and native plant initiatives, in addition to our growing efforts with private landowners, will undoubtedly benefit this species since these programs increase healthy habitats, native plants, and the insect life they support,” says Betuel. “Programs like our Habitat Stewardship Program and partnership programs with groups like the Georgia Forestry Foundation, National Resource Conservation Service, Chattahoochee RiverLands and others, permit us to build high quality bird habitat that will not only benefit Chucks, but also many other avian and wildlife species”
Georgia Audubon also plants to encourage public involvement with a community science program called the Nightjar Survey Network run by the Center for Conservation Biology. Currently, there is not a lot of data being reported in Georgia, but through outreach and education Georgia Audubon hopes to increase the number of birds being reported in the state.
“Chucks-will’s-widows are what’s known as a data deficient species because very little is known about major aspects of their biology,” says Betuel. “As a scientist, it’s hard to make conservation decisions about how best to help this declining species when there is so little data. Through a concerted effort with partners, other scientists, and the public, we hope to be able to fill in some of the missing information so that we can make better management decisions and ensure that our children and grandchildren will still hear the call of Chucks and other nightjars across Georgia.”