Chuck-will’s-widows inhabit a variety of forest habitats in the southeastern U.S. In some areas where their range overlaps with that of the Whip-poor-will, Chuck-will’s-widows tend to favor more open and drier forests.
Chuck-will’s-widows are most active in foraging at dusk and dawn, but they are also active on moonlit nights. Most of their prey is captured in midair by using the long rictal bristles around their bills to divert flying moths and beetles into their large mouths.
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Description of the Chuck-will’s-widow
The Chuck-will’s-widow is grayish to reddish, mottled with black, has a large head and large dark eyes, and a very small bill. In flight, the center of the tail shows reddish, with pale outer tail feathers.
The sexes are similar, though the pale tail corners are larger and whiter in males.
The sexes are similar, though the pale tail corners are smaller and buffier in females.
Seasonal change in appearance
Juveniles resemble adults.
Chuck-will’s-widows inhabit oak and pine woodlands.
Read more: Nightjar Family
Chuck-will’s-widows eat insects.
Chuck-will’s-widows forage at dusk and dawn and at night, capturing prey in midair with their large mouths.
Chuck-will’s-widows breed across much of the southeastern U.S., and winter in the West Indies, as well as Mexico and Central and South America. The population appears to be stable or increasing.
When molting flight feathers, Chuck-will’s-widows forage on the ground, sometimes consuming frogs.
Chuck-will’s-widows sometimes capture small birds and bats in addition to insects.
The song consists of a whistled “CHUCK-will’s-WIDOW”.
The Chuck-will’s-widow’s nest consists simply of eggs laid on a shady area of bare ground.
Number: Usually lay 2 eggs.
Color: White with darker markings.
Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 20-21 days, and begin to fly in about another 3 weeks, though continuing to associate with the adults for some time.
Bent Life History of the Chuck-will’s-widow
Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Chuck-will’s-widow – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
ANTROSTONUS CAROLINENSIS (Gmelin)
Dusk falls gently over the salt marshes, which reach out from a shoreline where moss-bannered live oaks and stately pines rustle softly in the late March breeze. A faint fragrance of jessamine hangs in the air; the sleepy note of a cardinal echoes from a cassina thicket, while atop a tall palmetto a mockingbird salutes the coming night with a burst of melody. Silence comes and the stars appear, glinting in golden splendor through the purple gloom.
Suddenly through the air comes another sound, a sharp, clear-cut, insistent chant. Splitting the silences, it strikes clappingly upon one’s ears, ringing with startling emphasis, unmistakable, thrilling and welcome. The first chuck-will’s-widow has returned to the Carolina low country, and spring is definitely back again I
There is something about nocturnal birds that fascinate one strangely. Doubtless the cloak of darkness that shrouds their movements and activities has a great deal to do with it. One cannot but wonder at their comings and goings; how they pursue their hunting amid the gloom. Their voices too lend much to the fascination, for the notes seem a part of the night itself, just as the bodies of the birds themselves seem more like detached and living particles of darkness than of flesh and feathers.
All my life I have lived amid the haunts of some of these furtive kindred of the dusk, but the chuck-will’s-widow above all seems to typify the mystery of the night and invests it with a sense of intangible yet satisfying tranquillity. It has always seemed to me that those beautiful lines, written of the cuckoo, might be even more applicable to the chuck-will’s-widow,’for, in truth, much of the time it does not seem a bird at all, but simply “a wandering voice.” Without brilliant plumage or grace of form, it nevertheless possesses undoubted character, and long acquaintance with the bird only increases the interest that is bound to be aroused in any study of its life and habits.
Spring: Generally speaking, the chuck-will’s-widow arrives in the South in March. There is some indication that a few birds spend the winter in southern Florida for C. J. Pennock (MS.) has stated that “in the Charlotte Harbor district a few at least appear to winter. February 26, 1926, one heard calling; February 24, 1927, while camping, we heard one.” Arthur H. Howell (1932) states that it “winters in small numbers” and gives December and February dates. R. J. Longstreet’s opinion (1930) is that “the chuckwill’s-widow is a summer resident in north Florida and a permanent resident in south Florida.” Audubon considered the species a permanent resident in the State, and his idea was, according to Allen (1871), confirmed by “old residents,” though he himself states it “is not observed till about the first of March.” I am obliged to spend portions of every winter month in Florida, being constantly in the field throughout the southern Everglades and the Keys, but it so happens that I have yet to find the, chuck-will’s-widow during this season. The wintering population is undoubtedly small and scattered.
It reaches north-central Florida about March 18 (D. J. Nicholson, MS.) and appears in the coastal districts of southern Georgia a few days later (T. D. Perry, MS.). In South Carolina, about Charleston, it arrives anywhere from the third week in March to the first week of April. The males always arrive first, followed in a few days by the females.
Courtship: Little time is lost by the chuck-will’s-widow, after its arrival from its winter home, in seeking a mate. Almost at once it undertakes the search, and it is at such times that the observer has an opportunity to see them actively in daylight. The courtship performance is an interesting one and, all things considered, is not difficult to observe. The outstanding characteristic is the strutting pomposity of the male. He sidles up to the watching female, his wings droop, the tail is widely spread, and he swells and swells until it really seems that the limit of inflation is reached and another fraction of distention would cause him to disintegrate like a bursting bomb. Various vocal efforts are indulged in meanwhile, accompanied by quick, jerky motions. Audubon (1840) has compared this phase of the proceedings to that of the domestic cock pigeon, while Arthur T. Wayne (1910) likened it to a turkey gobbler’s antics. This latter has always seemed to me most apt, for not only does the seemingly endless inflation remind one vividly of the turkey, but the motions also suggest this bird.
After this period of intense and apparently exhausting display, a space of calm and quiet pervades the pair should the male have been successful in his suit, and he perches placidly beside her.
Nesting: No semblance of a nest is constructed. The eggs are placed on the ground upon a carpet of dead leaves, and the sitting bird constitutes one of the finest examples of protective coloration that nature affords. Such dependence is placed in it that the closest approach is possible, and the bird flushes only when nearly trodden on. The mottling of the plumage is exactly like that of the variegated background of leaves, sun splashes, and shadow, and one may look directly at the bird without seeing it. Once the bird is flushed, however, it is perfectly easy to see the eggs, for they then stand out like huge pearls against the leaves, not having the similarity to the ground that characterizes the eggs of the nighthawk.
Mixed oak and pine woods are usually the nesting haunt of the chuck. In the large live-oak groves, which occur over so much of the plantation country of the South, the species is abundant and shows a remarkable tendency to place the eggs in nearly the same spot year after year. As a rule there is little if any undergrowth about the eggs. When under the pines, this would not be expected, and in the oak groves the ground is always covered by a veritable carpet of leaves, through which no undergrowth appears. Thus the eggs can be seen from a considerable distance should the bird be off them.
On May 8, 1926, 1 found two eggs on Folly Island, S. C., lying upon pine needles. Marking the spot accurately I returned the next year and on May 12, 1927, found two eggs within 5 feet of the spot used previously.
M. G. Vaiden (MS.) writes from Rosedale, Miss., that he discovered a set of eggs on May 1, 1911. Twelve years later, on April 27, 1923, he returned to the same locality and found two eggs within 10 feet of the same spot! He states that the “trees were larger, the hillside washed into gullies, but otherwise about as formerly.”
Walter Colvin (MS.), of Arkansas City, Kans., reports the first nesting of the species in that State, two eggs having been found in May 1923, near Arkansas City, Cowley County. Another nest was discovered the following year (1924) also in May. Probably the chuck had been nesting there, for some time previous and was also discovered in Miami County, by Mr. Colvin’s son John, in 1929.
Nesting observations from a variety of sources indicate that the chuck raises but one brood. However, if the eggs are taken, the bird will lay again and again until young are hatched. The late Arthur T. Wayne, of Mount Pleasant, S. C., once took in succession three sets from a pair near his home, and a fourth was laid, incubated, and hatched.
The chuck brooks no tampering with the eggs whatever. If they are handled, or as much as touched in some cases, the bird removes them to what is considered a safer locality. This habit was noted long ago and gave rise to much dispute and speculation as to the method employed in the transportation. It has been definitely proved that the bird takes them in the mouth. Audubon (1840) describes it so well that his account is given herewith:
When the Chuck-wills-widow, either male or female (for each sits alternately) has discovered that the eggs have been touched, it ruffles its feathers and appears extremely dejected for a minute or two. after which it emits a low murmuring cry, scarcely audible at a distance of more than eighteen or twenty yards. At this time the other parent reaches the spot, flying so low over the ground that I thought its little feet must have touched it, as it skimmed along, and after a few low notes and some gesticulations; all indicative of great distress, takes an egg in its large mouth, the other bird doing the same, when they would fly off together, skimming closely over the ground, until they disappeared among the branches and trees. But to what distance they remove the eggs, I have never been able to ascertain; nor have I ever had an opportunity of witnessing the removal of the young. Should a person, coming upon the nest when the bird is sitting, refrain from touching the eggs, the bird returns to them and sits as before. This fact I have also ascertained by observations.
The first “apparent” recorded instance of the occurrence and nesting of the chuck in Ohio is recorded by E. S. Thomas (1932) and dated May 14, 1932. On May 21, 1932, the nest and two eggs were found and the female, with two eggs, was collected for the Ohio State Museum.
My earliest nesting record for South Carolina was made on April 13, this being nearly two weeks in advance of the next nearest date. The eggs are laid somewhat sooner than usual in forward seasons, the above record being an illustration of such an instance.
Eggs: [AUTHORS NOTE: The chuck-will’s-widow regularly lays two eggs, which are between oval and elliptical-oval and usually moderately glossy. Major Bendire (1895) considered these eggs as “among the handsomest found in the United States.” I cannot do better than to quote his description of them, as follows:
The ground color of these eggs is of such a subtle tint that it is almost impossible to describe it accurately; it varies from a rich cream, with a faint pinkish suffusion, to a pale cream, and more rarely to pure white. They are in most cases more or less profusely blotched, marbled, and spotted with different shades of brown, tawny, fawn, and Isabel-color, underlaid and mixed with lighter shades of ecru drab, lavender, pearl gray, and pale heliotrope purple. In an occasional specimen some of the markings take the shape of irregular lines and tracings, like those of the Grackles ; in others they are fine and minute, obscuring the ground color to some extent. In some specimens the darker shades predominate; in others, the lighter; in fact, there is an endless variation in the style of, markings, but In the entire series there is Dot a single specimen which is not perceptibly marked.
The measurements of 54 eggs average 35.56 by 25.57 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 40 by 27.5, 38.1 by 28.2, 32.9 by 25.1, and 36.2 by 23.1 millimeters].
Young: Some notes of unusual interest in regard to the behavior of the adult at the nest, as well as the actions of the young birds, have been sent me by Herbert L. Stoddard, of Thomasville, Ga. These are transcribed herewith, and in the general lack of such knowledge they serve to illuminate something of the home life of this interesting species:
“April 30 (1928), 7 a. m.: One egg has hatched and the chick. is a queer little mite covered with a yellow-ochre down, and hops about like a frog in a very lively manner. When he is uncomfortably hot or chilled he gives a plaintive little pipe that can be heard about 20 feet.
“May 1: Other chick hatched out this morning or during the night and eggshells were gone.
“May 3: Chicks growing fast but still being brooded in same spot. Mother goes to sleep on a fence post after flushing, but as soon as chicks start to squeal from the beat, she becomes frantic and will nearly fly into my face. I bother her a few minutes at 3 p. m. each day, as I chase her well away, then duck into the blind and take a few feet of film as she comes back to the nest. Not much action, however, and she is a wise fowl. She knows perfectly when I am in the blind I
“May 6: Found the nest spot empty today at noon but finally located the old bird (she has two patches of albinistic feathers in center of upper breast, so I know it’s the same individual that performed the incubation) brooding her two chicks about 30 feet south. Their eyes have been open from the first but are now a little deeper in color and are always half closed like those of the adult in daytime.
“May 13: Have kept in rather close touch with the chuck-will’s widow family recently. They are living under a growth of sparkleberry shrubs and have lived here within a radius of 6 feet for the last ten days.
“The place is pretty well marked by their mourning-dove like excrement. When disturbed, the chicks hop off with elevated wings in a Mechanical toy’ sort of way. That is, their progress is marked by a series of rapid, toad like hops until they are ‘run Gown’ (usually in 30 or 40 feet). The wings serve as balances.
“The chicks have a little complaining whine that brings the mother in frantic haste. She flies noiselessly about, every now and then lying on the ground with her wings widely spread and reached forward, with the primaries pressed to the ground. In this queer position, she beats them a bit and opens and shuts her huge mouth, exhaling air audibly as she does so and occasionally uttering the queer, froglike croak. Altogether an odd performance. No evidence of a mate has been seen about this location.
Plumages: [AUTHOR’S NOTE: The young chick is completely covered with long, soft, silky down; on the upper parts the color varies from “ochraceous-tawny” or “light ochraceous-buff” on the head to “tawny” on the back; on the lower surface the color grades from “ochraceous-tawny” on the chest to “light ochraceous-buff” on the throat and belly.
The growth of the juvenal plumage, in which the sexes are alike, is rapid. Ridgway (1914) describes it very well as follows-‘ “Similar to the adult female in ‘pattern’ and coloration of tail, primaries, and primary coverts, but otherwise different; scapulars and middle wing coverts ochraceous-buff, irregularly barred with black; pileum more grayish, with small spots, instead of streaks, of black; under parts barred with black on a light brownish buffy ground, without vermiculations, mottling, or spots, and band across lower throat indistinct or obsolete.”
This plumage is worn but a short time, as a partial molt into a first winter plumage begins in July; I have seen a specimen that had nearly completed this molt on August 2; this plumage closely resembles that of the adult female, as the juvenal wings and tail are retained; I can find no evidence of a spring molt. Young birds apparently retain the first winter plumage, including the juvenal wings and tail, until the following summer; I have seen birds in this plumage during winter and as late as May in spring.
Both adults and young have a complete annual molt, mainly in July and August. At this first postnuptial molt young birds become practically indistinguishable from adults, and the sexes become differentiated. Young birds in fresh fall plumage are darker and more richly colored than adults, with more “ochraceous-tawny”; the colors have faded some by spring.
Adults have two recognizable color phases, a tawny phase, in which the ground color of the two central rectrices varies from “ochiraceous buff” to “ochraceous-tawny”, with deeper ochraceous or buffy colors in the scapulars and wing coverts; and a gray phase, in which the ground color of the two central rectrices is pale buff, or pale grayish buff, and the scapulars and wing coverts are paler and grayer.]
Food: The chuck-will’s-widow, like its family relatives, is an insect eater par excellence. The semitropical nature of much of its range is highly conducive to an abundance of insects and other nightflying creatures that are the bulk and mainstay of its diet. The mouth of the chuck is enormous, a characteristic of the goatsucker tribe, and is provided with bristles that act as a sort of additional trap. The widely open mouth is as much as 2 inches at the greatest breadth.
Prey is secured at low elevations, often only a few feet from the ground. The bird works the edges of woodlands bordering open fields and often makes sallies over the latter. The flight is silent, and the birds seem to be no more than gigantic moths. Beetles, “flying ants,” and moths make up a large bulk of the food in many localities. Small birds have frequently been found in the stomachs of this species. While seemingly incongruous, this is, after all, not difficult to understand when the conditions are considered. Many observers have concluded that this type of stomach content is taken by mistake; that the small, fluttering bird, confused by the darkness, is taken for a moth and snapped up by the cruising chuck, of course being swallowed whole.
An alternative theory exists, however, and, if true, the bird-taking habit would be removed from the realm of the accidental and fall into purposeful, predatory effort. The late Edward H. Forbush pointed out that the “goatsuckers show an anatomical affinity to the owls. They have similar, soft plumage, noiseless flight, large eyes and nocturnal vision.” It is possible that, with this structural relationship, there are other phases of likeness between the chuck and the owls. It is the largest of the goatsuckers that occur in this country, and the other representatives of the family do not seem to indulge in small bird prey. Doubtless this is because of their considerably smaller mouths, but whatever the reason the chuck remains as the outstanding example of this procedure.
That this habit is certainly not accidental sometimes is definitely proved by the observation recorded by Gerald Thayer (1899) in which he relates the instance of a chuck-will’s-widow pursuing and catching warblers near a ship off the Carolina coast. Hummingbirds, swallows, sparrows, and warblers have been among those birds found in the stomachs of the chuck, and the frequency with which this occurs lends color to the supposition that it is more intentional than accidental. More research is necessary on this subject.
Even granting the truth of it, the economic status of the chuck is on the right side of the ledger and the great percentage of its activities are beneficial, for the noxious insects which it destroys are numerous. Miss Phoebe Knappen, of the United States Biological Survey, in answer to a request of the writer has very kindly furnished a summary of specific results in the stomach analysis carried out on this species in the laboratories of that Bureau. A full stomach from Oklahoma, without date and therefore not included in the tabulation below, contained the following: Dendroica (sp.), 70 percent; Coleoptera (Calasoma, Harpalus, Carabidae, Ligynm, Strategus, Scarabaeidae), 22 percent; Ortboptera (Sehistoerca, Nesconocephalus), 8 percent.
The remarkable percentage of bird remains shown by this stomach would seem a great argument for the support of predation by purpose.
Seventy percent of ‘the total food among the wood warblers I However, it seems also to be a most exceptional case, for nothing that even approaches it is found in the list below, which embraces a range of 45 stomachs from five States and one Canadian Province. The entire amount of the stomachs listed contained the remains of but two birds!
With reference to the Oklahoma stomach, I wonder whether there might be a seasonal variation in the bird-taking propensities of the chuck-will’s-widow in relation to migration. It would appear reasonable to believe that when there is high activity among birds traveling through a given area, such as would take place in the spring migration, the chucks of that locality would have greater opportunity in securing them. One would not have to incline to the predatory theory to accept this, for if there are a great many small birds passing through an area for a few weeks, the chucks in their night hunting would blunder across more birds than would be the case later in the season. If the take i8 accidental, a higher percentage of accidents would then occur. If, on the other hand, the take is deliberate, then the chances of indulging that habit would be greater and would fall off later in the season. So, whatever impulse governs the matter, the migrations would result in more birds appearing in the diet. Unfortunately, the Oklahoma stomach was undated, so it is impossible to ascertain whether the bird secured its high percentage during a migration or not, but I incline to the belief that it was a spring specimen.
To return to the analysis, Miss Knappen states: “The other 45 stomachs taken in March (2), April (31), May (11), and November (1) were collected in Florida (37), Georgia (1), Mississippi (2), North Carolina (1), Ontario (1), and Texas (3). The annual percentiles of different items in the food, which was entirely animal, equal: Carabidae, 3.64; Phyllophaga, 32.98; other Scarabaeidae, 25.28; Cerambycidae, 4.49; Elateridae, 1.34; other Coleoptera, 5.13; Lepidoptera (moths), 12.36; Odonata, 4.63; Aves, 7.21; and miscellaneous animals, 2.85.
“The genera most persistently eaten were PAyllophaga (May beetles) and Anomala. The birds consumed were I Dendroica palmarum and I Helminthophila sp., while the miscellaneous bracket includes various bugs, flies, a bivalve, and other animal material.”
The insect content of these 45 stomachs totals more than 70 percent in but three classes (Phyllophaya, Scarabaeidae, and Lepidoptera) and other kinds make up considerably more than that. Birds are, represented by only 7.21 percent, and both victims were warblers. One cannot but wonder at the single “bivalve,” an item that would certainly not occur to most students as being connected with a chuck’s diet.
Behavior: Being as close kin to the whippoorwill as the chuck is, it cannot be expected that its habits will vary extensively. Inactive by day and a persistent hunter by night, it fulfills the usual characteristics pertaining to the family. Sitting motionless on a mossy log, a branch of some forest tree, or ensconced within a natural cavity, it dozes away the daylight hours. Some observers have found it sleeping in company with bats, in an obscure hollow. I have never found the chuck among such company, all my daylight observations being connected with the bird’s occupancy of some low limb, or on the ground itself.
When flushed, it rises with easy, fitful wafts of silent wings, alternating the beats with periods of sailing. Frequently it describes a curve and swings back near the spot from which it was flushed. Fairly close approach is allowed, even after the bird has been disturbed and alighted again. Doubtless it puts a great deal of dependence upon the wonderfully protective coloration of the plumage.
In the Carolina low country the chuck is very fond of roosting,in the sandy roads so characteristic of the rural districts. Passing along at dusk, one may see the reflection of the eyes plainly in the glare of a car’s headlights. At times a roosting bird is disturbed under these conditions by day, and I have had them flush and come directly at the car, swerving only slightly aside to pass. One bird on Bulls Island, S. C., was flushed two or three times in an hour, as we had occasion to pass the same spot often, and once it flew by so closely that an extended arm might have touched it. This habit of frequenting the sand roads is shared by the whippoorwill when it is present in coastal Carolina during the winter months.
Little or no distinction is made between these two birds in much of their range. The uninformed observer takes it for granted that any night bird that calls, except an owl, is a whippoorwill, and this seems the more strange in a section where the, chuck is abundant and the whippoorwill comparatively uncommon, as in coastal Carolina. The latter calls but rarely during its winter sojourn in the Charleston area; indeed, I have heard it but twice in all my years of ornithological study. One of these instances was in January, the other early in March. When the whippoorwill is present in this area, the chuck is not, for the former leaves before the latter appears from the south. In spite of this fact and the overwhelming evidence of the chuck’s presence and comparative absence of that of the whippoorwill, the people of the low-country are far more familiar with the name of the latter and credit the call of the chuck to the other bird.
The eyes of the chuck-will’s-widow reflect light admirably. Some years ago E. B. Chamberlain, of the Charleston Museum, and I carried out a series of experiments in “jack-lighting” amid the woods of Cumberland Island, Ga. It was a revelation in many ways. The night woods were literally twinkling and sparkling with eyes 1 The ground and low bushes gleamed with hundreds of points of light from the eyes of spiders; the lagoons reflected the ruby-red of many alligators, while here and there along the bank a wandering raccoon stared into the light beam or a trotting gray fox paused to sniff, one foreleg upraised like a pointer. Florida screech owls were seen perched atop low stumps, hunched and motionless, and although we could work up to within 3 feet of them, the take-off when it occurred was so utterly noiseless that not a whisper of sound ensued at even that close range. Dozens of deer were seen, their eyes, of course, reflecting the light perfectly, and even grazing horses and cows along the edges of the lagoons were as plainly noted.
Now and then a very large pair of eyes close to the ground shone out. Coming closer, we could see a chuck, sitting like a stone, staring rigidly into the light. While one of us held the light, the other worked around to the side and came up on the bird from behind, and reaching out could pick up the staring bird with ease. We examined several in this way, while they uttered a hissing note of fear or anger. The birds struggled strongly while held and were very difficult to quiet.
Though sharing with the other goatsuckers the characteristic habit of perching lengthwise, the chuck occasionally departs from custom and proves the ancient adage that exceptions make the rule. N. B. Moore (MS.) writes that he has seen it perch directly across a branch when the latter is an inch or more in diameter. He once “saw one perch on a greenbrier one-quarter inch in diameter as cleverly as any bird, though it sank suddenly under its weight for 7 or 8 inches. The bird remained on it for 10 or 15 minutes.” It is likely that the chuck indulges in this more than one would ordinarily suppose. I have seen it but once, when a bird was flushed in daylight and flew to a small, gnarled oak, where it alighted among the outer twigs, perching distinctly crosswise. It had two young in the near vicinity.
In the reference already made above to Thayer’s (1899) account of this species capturing warblers on a ship off the South Carolina coast, he noted that, on shipboard, the bird perched crosswise on the rigging at times. Another remarkable character was that this bird was seen, on flights out from the ship, actually to alight on the surface of the ocean I This is certainly phenomenal and constitutes behavior that is utterly at variance with the bird’s ordinary habits. One more instance of crosswise perching is Doted by W. S. Long (1935); he saw a specimen near Lawrence, Kans., that indulged in this posture.
The chuck-will’s-widow frequently roosts in the same spot day after day, and one may be fairly certain of surprising a bird regularly when once the roosting area is located. During migrations it occasionally is found in rather extraordinary situations, one of the most striking of these being noted by J. M. McBride (1933), of New Orleans. He writes that lie watched one for a week, September 14 to 21, 1933, occupy an unprotected branch of a hackberry tree just even with his second-floor window. It was to be seen daily on this branch from 6 a. in. to 6 p. m. His house was in the heart of the residential district of New Orleans.
Voice: There is no doubt that the voice of the chuck-will’s-widow is its most interesting and outstanding characteristic. Indeed, it is the one thing that many ever know of the species. It is a bird easily heard but comparatively seldom seen; therefore, though the call may be a nightly sound throughout the summer, the author may be utterly unknown to many by sight. However, no one who lives within the range of the chuck can have failed to listen to the notes perforce, and only a deaf person can fail to be aware of its presence. Though the specific name of “vociferous” has been applied to the whippoorwill, it is equally true of the chuck-will’s-widow, if not more so, but the generic name of the latter is well chosen, for the mouth is certainly “cavelike.”
The call of this species is well deserving of comment, particularly in view of the fact that there seems to be so much confusion about it in the recent literature. Why this difference of opinion should exist, and why certain positive statements have been made, are sources of wonder to me and to others who know the voice of the chuck intimately. How anyone could listen for only a few minutes to the call and then say that “the son(r of the chuck-will’s-widow is less vigorous than that of the whippoorwill; it consists of three notes …. with a slight accent on the first syllable” is beyond my comprehension. And yet more than one ornithologist has so stated. It seems significant that all those so describing it are northerners, that they know the chuck only by reason of short southern trips of a few days or weeks. Or, perhaps, they take the opinion of others who have as little information as themselves. If their experience with this bird covered any extended period, they could hardly fall into such error.
The call of the chuck-will’s-widow is distinctly 4-syllabled (some observers say five at times), and therein lies one of the marked differences between it and the whippoorwill, which does have a 3-syllabled call. The accent is not on the first but on the third syllable; in other words, on the “wid” of widow. Few birds “say” their names as plainly. The chwk is uttered on a lower tone than the rest but is distinctly audible at 300 yards or more. At some distance one might be excused for thinking the call 3-syllabled, for it may sound like will’s-widow, but on still nights the first syllable is plainly heard even across broad bodies of water, as occur over much of the southern coast region.
The notes are not limited entirely to the dusk of evening or night. The bird sometimes calls in full daylight, either on cloudy or bright days, and sometimes during rains. I have heard it at I p. in. on a bright, clear day. It is, of course, not the rule any more than is the cross perching sometimes indulged in, but it certainly occurs. However, it is during late evening and all through the night that the chuck really performs, and it sometimes calls through the entire period. In localities favored by the species, several birds may be calling at once, which results in a jumble and overlapping of notes. Herbert L. Stoddard writes that, never having heard a chuck-will’s widow calling in the daytime, he was “greatly surprised to hear two calling back and forth at 11: 30 a. in. today (May 25, 1928). It was crystal clear and the sun was hot, but these two called over 5 minutes, exactly as they do in the nighttime.”
In rapidity and frequency, there is much variation. A bird may utter a very few calls or very many. 1 have counted individual calls many times, and there seems to be no established custom or sequence. The usual interval between the notes is about 21/2 seconds, when the bird is doing a string of them. I counted the calls of a bird just outside my window one night and it ran off Ill without “drawing breath” other than the short spacing between each, 21/2 seconds. The calls were uttered at the rate of 25 a minute, this series taking about 41/2 minutes. One of my longest counts is 176 calls successively uttered without a break. E. S. Dingle tells me that he has counted 300 consecutive calls. On the night of June 2, 1939, at my home in St. Andrews Parish, Charleston, I heard a chuck that beat anything I have encountered yet. I had gone to bed; the night was warm and I was lying near a window, when a chuck started up about 50 yards away in one of the live oaks in my yard. I began counting almost automatically, and kept it up, idly wondering whether it would reach my former record. It did, and then some. I continued to count, and count. Finally, I got up and sat by the window, in order not to miss any of it. The calls were perfectly continuous, and uttered at the usual rate, although twice there was a slight break in perhaps as much as a second’s lateness between them. The bird shifted its perch twice, moving perhaps a few yards each time, but did not stop calling. The total was eight hundred and thirty-four ea.
The notes are clear-cut, insistent, and sharply enunciated with the exception of the first syllable. There is a ringing quality about them that is very striking, and one gets the impression of full voiced effort. The head is moved noticeably when the call is uttered, and doubtless considerable muscular effort is put forth. Some writers have termed the notes “doleful,” “monotonous,” and “melancholy,” but to me they have never seemed anything but soothing and dreamily satisfying. Charles Torrey Simpson (1920) says that the chucks “make night hideous” with their “terrible chatter.” Thus do tastes differ!
When it arrives from its winter quarters the chuck is particularly vociferous, and keeps this up until after the eggs are hatched. There is then a cessation followed by some renewed activity before departing for the south on the approach of fall. It must be very susceptible to cool weather, for it does not remain even as far south as Charleston until early in fall. The first part of September usually sees it gone, although individuals linger longer than that.
Besides the regular, self-naming call, the chuck has another note, which is not well known and is very difficult to describe. It is not the hissing sound uttered when the bird is caught or handled but is given occasionally when about its hunting. Almost entirely, if not entirely, it is a flight note; at least I have never heard it when the bird is sitting. It is inadequate to describe it as a “grow],” and yet that is the only word that seems to approach it. As one flies by in the gloom, this note is heard, and it is an eerie, utterly indefinite sound, possessing a strangely unearthly quality which impresses one with wonder that it comes from a bird.
It is seldom if ever referred to in the literature but some have remarked upon it in correspondence to the writer. The late James Henry Rice, Jr., of Brick House Plantation, Wiggins, S. C., once had an army officer visiting him who remarked on this note, but Mr. Rice himself, being very deaf, was not aware of it, though he knew the chuck well. He asks, in a letter to Mr. Bent, whether anyone has noted what he termed “that clucking sound.” I should hardly describe it as a “cluck” but it may impress some as such.
One other note has been commented on by those thouroughly familiar with the chuck. It is often given just as the bird is flushed and, like the one above, is very difficult to describe. It can be interpreted as a “croak” perhaps, and Dr. Eugene E. Murphey (MS.), of Augusta, Ga., calls it “froglike.” His allusion to it, as well as the utterances of the regular call as given in fall, is given in a communication as follows:
“I imagine most field ornithologists are familiar with the froglike croak that the bird makes when flushed, and I am inclined to believe that this note is much more apt to be sounded when the bird has been flushed from the nest. One observation may be worthy of note, namely, that I have beard the chuck-will’s-widow singing as late as September 12 in Edgefield County, S. C. When it comes to interpreting the quality of a bird’s song, it is impossible to get away from a personal construction, which, of course, is invalid in a scientific observation, but it seemed to me that on this occasion the song was very definitely less vehement and forceful, certainly less frequently reiterated than is the case in spring; in fact, the whole thing seemed to have a querulous and uncertain character, somewhat as if he were wondering why he should be singing at this particular time of year. I endeavored to collect the bird, but the rapidly gathering darkness made it impossible for me to secure it, although I was very close to it several times and saw it take flight. Unfortunately, it chose to fly toward the darkening cast rather than the west where there was still an afterglow.”
In commenting generally upon the continuity of the chuck’s calls during the early part of the season, Herbert L. Stoddard, of Thomasville, Ga., has sent me the following notes:
‘Spent the entire night of April 14, 1927, on the alert in the observatory at the quail pens on lookout for an owl which has been killing quail . . . a brilliant moonlight night. Chuck-will’s-widows called at night, no 5-minute period between 9 p. m. and 5 a.m. elapsing without one to eight or ten calling. They have many guttural notes of different inflection, as well as the beautiful call note, a guttural, low-toned waugh given in questioning tones being common. These notes are most frequently uttered when a pair of the birds are together.”
Fall: The latest record in fall for the chuck-will’s-widow in lower South Carolina is September 28 (Wayne, 1910). The great majority of the birds have left some time before this date. Indeed, Dr. Murphey’s record mentioned above was a late one and impressed him markedly, as his account shows.
The earliest arrival record for the whippoorwill for the same locality is September 15, 1928 (Edward S. Dingle, MS.). The latest whippoorwill record is for April 1, 1911 (Wayne, 1910). Thus, in some exceptional years there may be the slightest overlapping of the arrival and departure of the chuck and the whippoorwill, but in the main the one has gone when the other appears, and there is usually some little interval between the sojourns of the two.
Referring to the fall migration in El Salvador, Dickey and van Rossem. (1938) say: “Chuck-will’s-widows were seen as late as October 29 at Rio Goascorin, where they were more common than in any other locality. Most were found well up in trees, once as high as a hundred feet above the ground, and so wild that collecting them was usually impossible. At Lake Alomega one flew from tree to tree through the high forest and at no time permitted an approach closer than about a hundred yards. * * *
“The usual daytime locations were large, horizontal branches twenty feet or so from the ground and in rather heavy woods.”
Range: Southeastern United States, the Caribbean region, Central America, and northern South America; casual north to Ontario and Nova Scotia.
Breeding range: The chuck-will’s-widow breeds north to southeastern Kansas (Arkansas City and Independence); Missouri (Willard, Springfield, and Sulphur Spring); southern Illinois (Olney); southern Ohio (West Union); and southern Maryland (Point Lookout). South along the Atlantic coast to Florida (St. Augustine, Daytona Beach, Royal Palm Hammock, and Man-o-war Key). South to Florida (Man-o-war Key, Fort Myers, St. Marks, Lynn Haven, and Pensacola); southern Alabama (Spring Hill); southern Louisiana (St. Francisville and Urania); and southern Texas (Houston, San Antonio, and Kerrville). West to central Texas (Kerrville, Waco, and Commerce); eastern Oklahoma! (probably rarely Norman and Copan); and southeastern Kansas (Arkansas City).
Winter range: The winter range is not clearly defined, but at this season it has been found north to Cuba (Isle of Pines and San Pablo); the Bahama Islands (Andros Island and Nassau) ; the Dominican Republic (Catarrey and Samana); and Puerto Rico (Arecibo, San Piedras, and Vieques Island). East to Puerto Rico (Vieques Island); and northern Colombia (Medellin). South to northern Colombia (Medellin and Antioquia); Panama (Panama City and Divala); Costa Rica (Rio Siesola and Candelaria); Nicaragua (San Juan del Sur); El Salvador (Lake Olomega and probably Barra de Santiago); and Guatemala (Guatemala City). West to Guatemala (Guatemala City); and western Cuba (Isle of Pines). It appears that occasionally individuals may spend the winter in Florida, as one was recorded from Orlando on December 1, 1885; one from Lake Jackson on December 5, 1911; and another from the same general area on December 28, 1903. One also was seen at Chenier an Tigre, La., on January 2, 1934.
Spring migration: Early dates of arrival are: Florida-Orlando, February 17; Melrose, March 3; Palma Sola, March 5; Daytona Beach, March 9; Merritts Island, March 12. Alabama-Prattville, April 2; Barachias, April 3; Greensboro, April U; Montgomery, April 6. Georgia-Savannali, March 15; Cumberland, March 25; St. Marys, March 28, South Carolina-Charleston, March 12; Frogmore, March 31; Columbia, April 6. North Carolina-Raleigh, April 10; Louisburg, April 17. Virgiiiia-Lawrenceville, April 12; Bowers Hill, April 26. Louisiana-Bains, April 2; Bayou Sara, April 11; Baton Rouge, April 18; New Orleans, April 28. Mississippi-Biloxi, April 9; Jackson, April 10. Arkansas-Delight, April 10; Monticello, April 10; Fayetteville, April 14. TennesseeChattanooga, April 10; Knoxville, April 12; Belfast, April 18. Kentucky-Covington, April 7; Bowling Green, April 25. MissouriValley Park, April 18; Monteer, April 23. Texas-Refugio County, March 17; Corpus Christi, -.Nlarch 18; Austin, March 21; Kerrvilie, April 8. Oklahoma-Tulsa, April 20. Kansas-Manhattan, April 26; Elmdale, April 29.
Fall migration-Data on the autumn movement are not plentiful, but late dates of departure are: Oklahoma-Canadian River, September 5. Texas-Grapevine, September 20; Brownsville, October 1; Corpus Christi, October 22. Akansas-London, September 1; Delight, October 7. Mississippi-Bay St. Louis, September 25. Louisiana-New Orleans, September 21. Virgiiiia-Lawreneeville, August 24. North Carolina-Louisburg, September 19; Raleigh, September 21. South Carolina-Suminerton, September 23; Charleston, September 28. Georgia-Athens, September 6; Savannah, September 23. Florida-College Point, October 19; Pensacola, October 21; Punta Rossa, October 30.
Casual records: Among records of this species north of its known breeding range are several for Maryland-one heard at North Beach on June 28, 1930; one heard at Clements on August 14, 1932; a mounted specimen in the collection of the Cambridge High School, taken at Fishing Creek sometime prior to 1933; and one recorded at Laurel on May 12, 1935. A specimen was taken at New Haven, Conn., on May 17, 1889; another was captured at East Boston, Mass., on October 13, 1915; one was killed at Pictou, Nova Scotia, on October 22, 1890; one was taken at Dayton, Ohio, on May 1, 1933, one was collected on Point Pelee, Ontario, on May 19, 1906; one was taken at Indianapolis, Ind., during April or May 1908; and one wits obtained at Sugar Creek, in southeastern Iowa, on June 17, 1933. There are several records for Kansas north of areas where it is known to breed, among them being a specimen collected at Wichita on June 12, 1898; one taken at Hamilton on April 30, 1912; and one obtained at Lawrence on May 4, 1935.
Egg dates: Arkansas: 11 records, May 15 to June 26. Florida: 53 records, March 7 to June 30; 27 records, March 20 to May 13, indicating the height of the season. Georgia: 28 records, April 25 to June 18; 14 records, May 7 to 24. Texas: 17 records, April 4 to June 16; 9 records, May 2 to June 5.