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Common Poorwill

This nocturnal bird is from the Nightjar family and is common in the western side of the United States.

The Common Poorwill can be inactive, essentially hibernating, for most of the winter if temperatures remain low.  During the rest of the year, Common Poorwills roost at two or more sites on alternate days.

Common Poorwills forage primarily at dawn and dusk by perching on the ground or a low object, and flying up to capture insects in midair. A special structure in the poorwill’s eye enhances its night vision.


Description of the Common Poorwill


The Common Poorwill is grayish, mottled with black, and has a large head and large dark eyes, a short tail, and a very small bill. In flight it shows rufous flight feathers and pale corners at the end of the tail.

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.

Read more: Nightjar Family

Seasonal change in appearance



Juveniles resemble adults.


Common Poorwills inhabit open areas that are arid and either brushy or rocky.


Common Poorwills eat insects.


Common Poorwills forage primarily at dusk and dawn, watching for prey from the ground or a low perch and flying up to catch insects in midair.


Common Poorwills breed across much of the western U.S. and southwestern Canada, as well as in Mexico. The population appears to be stable or increasing.

Fun Facts

Common Poorwills can hibernate in winter, when temperatures or food supplies are low. Their body temperature and oxygen needs are lowered to conserve energy.

Young Common Poorwills are fed regurgitated insects.


The song consists of a whistled “poor-will”.


Similar Species

Whip-poor-wills and Common Nighthawks are larger and have longer tails.


The Common Poorwill’s nest consists simply of eggs laid on bare ground or on a rock.

Number: Usually lay 2 eggs.
Color: Usually white.

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 Common Poorwill

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 Common Poorwill – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.


Nuttall’s poorwill is the best known and the most widely distributed race of this species, occupying a wide range in western North America, from southern Canada to Mexico and from the Great Plains to eastern California. Major Bendire (1895) says of its haunts:

In some of its habits it differs considerably from the preceding species of this family which are almost entirely confined to the denser woodlands; the Poor-will, however, although frequently found in similar localities, Is apparently equally as much at home on the open prairie and the almost barren and arid regions of the interior, which are covered only here and there with stunted patches of sage (Artemisia) and other desert plants. The climate does not seem to affect It much, as It Inhabits some of the hottest regions of the continent, like Death Valley, In southeastern California, as well as the slopes of the Rocky and Blue mountains, in Oregon, where it reaches altitudes of from 6,000 to 8,000 feet. I have heard the Poor-will in Bear Valley, Oregon, in a locality where frost could be found every month In the year.

Dr. Alexander Wetmore (1932) writes: “At times poorwills are found in growths of low forests, but they are more often encountered in regions where dense clumps of brush are scattered over otherwise open ground, as is common in desert and semiarid localities, or in brush-grown, rocky canyons, where the ground is rough and strewn with boulders.”

Referring to the Huachuca Mountains, in Arizona, Harry S. Swarth (1904) says: “I found the Poor-will quite abundant during the summer months in the foothill region and in the lower parts of the canyons; but though most numerous below 5000 feet they were by no means restricted to these parts, for I saw or heard some in all parts of the mountains occasionally up to an altitude of nearly 10,000 feet.”

George F. Sinvnons (1925) designates its haunts in Texas as “high, gravelly flats or bits of plateau grown with post oak timber and with occasional moist spots; gravel patches dotted with catsclaw bushes, located in post oak growth on slopes and flat tops of hills; high prairies on rough ground along the terraces of valleys; bare ground on rocky hillsides; among shrubbery or on semi-arid flats.”

Nesting: The nesting of the poorwill is a very simple affair. The two eggs are laid on the bare ground, without any semblance of nest building; a slight hollow may be scraped in the bare earth, or the eggs may be laid on hard gravelly ground, or even on a flat rock. The exact spot chosen for a nest site may be in full sunlight, but oftener it is at least partially shaded by some bush, often a greasewood bush or a bunch of sagebrush, or some other bunch of vegetation. The only eggs taken by Major Bendire (1895) were “laid on the bare ground under a small grease-wood bush (Obione) and were fully exposed to the sun,” near Tucson, Ariz. Prof. D. E. Lantz wrote to him from Kansas, regarding the nesting habits of the poorwill in that region, that “with one exception the eggs taken were laid upon bare patches of gravel or on low, flat rocks, and placed usually near a bunch of weeds or a tuft of grass. The exception was a set found on the bare ground in an alley in Manhattan City. This alley was in constant use and it was strange that the eggs remained for so long a time undisturbed, for when taken incubation had begun in both eggs. The Poor-wills usually keep to the vicinity of steep hills and old dead grass. They seem to return to the same locality from year to year to breed.”

E. S. Cameron (1907), reporting from Montana, says: “On June 26,1907, Mr. M. M. Archdale flushed a Poor-will from her two white eggs on a steep hillside in some rough pine brakes at his ranch near Knowlton. In this unfrequented place the eggs were fully exposed on the bare earth amidst the pines. On June 28, we went together to the place intending to photograph the eggs, but they had been already removed by the bird.”

Eggs: The two eggs of the poorwill are generally said to be pure white, but Bendire (1895) says that the color is not pure white and that “on close inspection it can readily be seen that it is a delicate cream, with a faint pinkish tint which does not perceptibly fade. Eggs in the collection taken more than twenty years ago still plainly show this peculiar tint. The eggs are unspotted as a rule, but an occasional specimen shows a few faint, darker shell markings around one end, which are barely perceptible to the naked eye, and which fade considerably in time.”

In shape the eggs vary from oval to elliptical-oval; and they are only moderately glossy. The measurements of 50 eggs average 26.3 by 19.9 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 28.9 by 19.8, 27.5 by 21.6, 22.1 by 19.3, and 24.6 by 18.1 millimeters.

Young: The period of incubation does not seem to be definitely known. Dr. Wetmore (1932) says: “Both birds are said to assist in incubation. When disturbed about the nest, they tumble about and with widely opened mouths make a loud hissing sound terrifyingly like the hissing of a snake.”

Robert B. Rockwell writes to me that he found a female with two young “as large as an ordinary week or ten days old chick. They were squatting perfectly motionless on the ground, about a foot apart, each in the shadow of something. Their feathers were quite well developed. They made no move when I picked them up, but opened their eyes when I put them down again.”

Plumages: Elmer C. Aldrich (1935) describes the downy young of the dusky poorwill, less than a day old and about 21/2 inches long, as covered with a rich buff down. Ridgway (1914) describes the downy covering of a young nuttalli as “vinaceous-buff, paler on underparts.” Two small partially downy young in my collection are showing the growth of the first plumage on the forehead, crown, nape, back, and scapulars; these feathers are dull buffy white, minutely sprinkled with grayish, and have small spots and narrow bars of black; the new feathers on the underparts and flanks are dull white, indistinctly barred with dusky; the wings are less than one third grown, and the tail is just sprouting.

Ridgway (1914) says of the young in juvenal plumage: “Not essentially different from adults, but markings in general less sharply defined, especially on underparts, and throat patch buff instead of white.”

I have been unable to learn anything about the molts of either young or adults,-but Dr. Joseph Grinnell (1908) says that a specimen in juvenal plumage, “taken August 22, shows many feathers of the full adult plumage in the throat and breast. The juvenal plumage is characterized by having the throat patch buff and the back conspicuously mixed with cinnamon-rufus.”

A young male, collected by Van Tyne and Sutton (1937) in Brewster County, Tex., on May 25, was in the midst of the postjuvenal molt; “the crown is uniform gray, without any suggestion of a dark central patch, the feathers being only lightly’ speckled with black. * * * The chest lacks entirely the black patch and band, the feathers being lightly and indistinctly tipped with tawny and whitish.”

The so-called frosted poorwill (nitidu) is now regarded as merely a color phase of nuttalli.

Food: The food of the poorwill consists, so far as it appears by the data available, entirely of insects, mostly the smaller, night flying species, such as moths, beetles, chinch bugs, and locusts. Mrs. Bailey (1928) says that “in one stomach, 80 per cent of the contents was grasshoppers and locusts.” Many of these insects are caught on the wing in the capacious mouths of these birds, but many are also picked up on the ground.

Dr. R. W. Shufeldt (1885) noticed a poorwill “apparently amusing himself by makeing short jumps of two feet or more up in the air, then resting on the road to repeat the performance in a moment or so. Another was going through similar capers on the broad walk. They seemed to be perfectly oblivious to my presence, and, indeed, some children further along were trying to catch them with their hands.” He shot one of the birds, and “was much surprised to find in its mouth some four or five quite sizable moths, and the upper portion of the oesophagus was filled with a wad of a dozen or fifteen more. Fully half of these were yet alive, an * d two or three managed to fly away when freed from the bodies of their more disabled companions. This, then, is what the bird was up to; instead of flying about as a Nighthawk does, taking his insect prey in a conspicuous manner upon the wing, he captures it in the way I have described above.”

A. Brazier Howell (1927) writes:
August 28, 1926, 1 was sitting near midnight, on the observation platform of the California Limited as It stopped at Needles, California. It was with much Interest that I then noted at least three poorwills (Phalaenoptilus nuttalli nitidus) hawking about a powerful are light in the railway yards close by. The observation point of one of these was upon the top of a board fence well within the circle of illumination; of the others, some point out of my direct vision and just beyond the fence. One after the other, until my train left ten minutes later, they would flutter up in their quest for insects, not just somewhere near the light but apparently right against the glass globe which Inclosed the are, returning each time to their respective stations for observation.

Mrs. Bailey (1928) says: “When hunting for food the Poor-will skims swiftly and noiselessly close over the ground with irregular turnings and windings and rests between, and when its catch contains hard indigestible parts like the wing coverts of beetles, ejects them in the form of pellets, as do the hawks and owls, kingfishers, and others of similar food habits. A road through a forest with its abundant flies and insects is ‘said to be one of its favorite hunting grounds.”

The stomach of one taken by Van Tyne and Sutton (1937) on May 25 in Brewster County, Tex., was crammed with four large June beetles (Phyllophaga sp.) and a large army ant (male Eciton sp.).

Behavior: Mrs. Bailey (1928) says that a poorwill, wounded by Mr. Bailey, exhibited a surprising method of defense; he “opened his mouth wide and hissed and blew and flopped about on the ground, always facing the enemy. Blowing like a blow snake and opening and shutting his mouth, he was enough to terrify all minor enemies.”

Referring to the eye-shine, common among the Caprimulgidae, Mrs. Bailey quotes Dr. Bergtold as saying: “While motoring at night through a particularly dark canyon, I noticed far ahead in the illuminated road, two small glowing pink spots which were extinguished when a bird flew from the road on the near approach of the car. The bird alighted again, some distance ahead in the road, when the pink spots reappeared and were identified as the bird’s eyes; it was shot and proved to be a Poor-will.”

Dr. Wetmore (1932) says that poorwills “rest during the day on the ground, though after night, when feeding or calling, may seek higher perches on stones or posts or on low branches. On one occasion I saw one by bright moonlight calling from a bush, where it perched crosswise on a small limb, like any ordinary bird, though ordinarily they rest lengthwise of branches, like others of their family.”

Dr. Elliott Cones (1874) says: “Like others of its family, Nuttall’s Whippoorwill is oftener heard than seen. When flushed from its retreat in the daytime, among the shrubbery or tall weeds, it rises hurriedly with wayward flight, dashes a few yards, and re-lights. There is something about it at such times that strongly recalls the Woodcock, and the bird is quite as difficult to shoot on the wing.”

Voice: The call of the poorwill is generally recorded as a clear pronunciation of its name, but many observers have noted a third syllable, audible at only a short distance, making the complete song sound like poor-will-low, or poor-will-ce, when the bird is near, or poor-will when farther away, or even pl-will when still farther away. Mr. Simmons (1925) writes it puih-whee-ee.

Dr. Coues (1874) says: “This cry is very lugubrious, and in places where the birds are numerous the wailing chorus is. enough to excite vague apprehensions on the part of the lonely traveler, as he lies down to rest by his camp-fire, or to break his sleep with fitful dreams, in which lost spirits appear to bemoan their fate and implore his intercession.”

Some other writers give a less unpleasant impression of the song; for instance, Dr. Wetmore (1932) says: “Near at hand these calls are harsh, but with distance the first two assume a pleasant, somewhat melancholy cadence.” And Mrs. Bailey (1928) writes: “When we were camped on the edge of a canyon in the Guadalupe Mountains, at dusk while the bats were flying down in the canyon, up along the edge came the Poor-wills so near that we could hear their syllables distinctly-poor-will’-uck, poor-will’-uck. Sometimes two would call antiphonally, faster and faster till they fairly tripped over each other. The call as it is often given is a delightfully soft, poor-will’, poor-will’, poor-will’-uek, which like the delicious aromatic smell of the sagebrush clings long to the memory of the lover of the west.”

Henry W. Henshaw (1875) says that “their notes are most often noticed in early evening, and again just before dawn, but not infrequently their song is heard through the entire night. * * * When flying, they emit a constantly repeated clucking note, which is, I think, common to both sexes. * * * The males continue their notes till very late in the season; for I frequently heard them during the first part of October, and even as late as the 17th.”

Field marks: In superficial appearance the poorwill looks very much like a small whippoorwill, and its behavior is similar. It also somewhat resembles a partly grown young nighthawk, but its behavior is different; whereas the nighthawk flies about high in the air in pursuit of its prey, the poorwill hunts on or near the ground, flitting about like a large moth on silent wings; the poorwill is more strictly nocturnal in its activities than the nighthawk; furthermore, it exhibits no white patch in the wing, while flying, but shows white tips on the lateral tail feathers. Its note is, of course, characteristic.

Winter: The poorwill retires from the northern portions of its range late in fall and spends the winter near, or beyond, our southern borders. Dr. Coues (1874) reports, in some notes from Ogden, Utah, that “it lingers at its summer home till the autumn is far advanced, as we found it at Ogden as late as October 6, quite far up the slope of the mountains, in the midst of a driving snow-storm the first of the season-the snow having then already accumulated to the depth of several inches.”

In Arizona, New Mexico, and central Texas it is usually absent from late in October to early in April. It apparently winters more or less regularly in southern Texas, though its main winter range is in Mexico.

Range: Central and western United States, and southern British Columbia, south to central Mexico.

Breeding range: The breeding range of the poorwill extends north to southern British Columbia (Kamloops and Okanagan Landing); Montana (Billings and Terry); northwestern South Dakota (Slim Buttes); north-central Nebraska (Long Pine Canyon); and southwestern Iowa (Pottawattamie County). East to southwestern Iowa (Pottawattamie County); eastern Kansas (Blue Rapids, Onaga, Lawrence~ and Clearwater); central Texas (Kerrville, San Antonio, and Somerset) ; eastern Coahuila (Sabinas and Saltillo) ; and probably Morelos (Cuernavaca). South to probably Morelos (Cuernavaca) ; southern Sonora (Alamos); and southern Baia California (San Jose del Cabo). West to Baia California (San Jose del Cabo, Miraflores, Triunfo, Pozo Grande, San Fernando, Santo Domingo, La Joya, San Telmo, and probably Todos Santos Islands); California (San Diego, Escondido, Ojai Valley, Santa Cruz Mountain, San Geronimo, Covel, and probably Yreka) ; Oregon (Brownsboro, Bridge Creek, and probably Netarts) ; eastern Washington (Crab Creek and Cheney) and British Columbia, (Summerland and Kamloops).

Winter range: The species is probably resident in the southern part of its range and during the winter season is found north to southern California (Berryessa Station, Paicines, Death Valley, and Laguna) ; rarely southern Arizona (Tucson) ; and southern Texas (El Paso, rarely Kerrville, Laredo, and Falfurrias).

The range as outlined is for the entire species, which has been separated into four currently recognized geographic races. The typical subspecies, Nuttall’s poorwill (P. n. nuttalli) occupies all the United States portion of the range except that part of California west of the Sierra Nevada. The dusky poorwill (P. n. californicus) is found in western California from the northern part of the Sacramento Valley south to northwestern Baja California; the desert poorwill (P. n. Weyi) is restricted to the lower Colorado River Valley, southwestern Arizona, and northeastern Baja California; and the San Ignacio poorwill (P. n. dickeji) is found in Baja California. south of latitude 300 N.

Spring migration: Early dates of spring arrival are: TexasKerrville, February 4; San Antonio, February 2T. Kansas-Manhattan, April 7; Onaga, April T. New Mexico-Chloride, March 31; State College, April 7; Rinconada, April 10. Colorado-Beulah, April 29; Denver, May 9. Wyoming-Laramie Peak, May 2; Lingle, May 3. Montana-Terry, May 16. Arizona-Tombstone, March 20. Utah-Kobe Valley, May 23. California-Piedra, March 6; Daggett, March 12; San Clemente Island, March 30; Lassen Peak, April 16. British Columbia-Okanagan Landing, April 22.

Fall migration: Late dates of fall departure are: British Columbia-Okanagan Landing, September 20. California-Daggett, October 21; Los Angeles, October 25; La Verne, October 28; Garnsey, November 2. Arizona-San Francisco Mountain, September 29. Montana-Big Sandy, September 4; Bighorn River, September 19. Wyoming-Powder River, September 9; Clear Fork, September 19. Colorado-Beulah, October 8. New Mexico-State College, October 30; Sierra Hachita, November 24. South Dakota-Whito River, September 27. Kansas-Onaga, September 27. Oklahoma-Kenton. September 26.

Egg dates: Arizona: 5 records, May 2 to August 2. California: 42 records, March 22 to August 8; 21 records, May 6 to June 25, indicating the height of the season. Colorado: 5 records, May 26 to July 27. Texas: 11 records, April 29 to June 20.


The goatsuckers are now in their proper place in the A. 0. U. Check-List, showing their relationship to the owls, which they strikingly resemble in several characters. The poorwills are conspicuous in this respect; they are more strictly nocturnal in their activities than some of the owls, for which they are well adapted; the eyes are very large, suggesting those of owls; the mouth is very broad, but some of the owls have broad mouths also; the plumage is fully as soft as that of the owls; and their flight is noiseless, like that of most night-flying birds. The Caprimulgidae are not predators on vertebrate animals, although the chuck-will’s-widow has been known to eat birds; but they all live on animal food; and many owls live largely on insects.

The dusky poorwill does not enjoy so extensive a distribution as its inland relative, nuttalli, but perhaps it is equally as well known throughout its range in California.

Nesting: The steep slopes and ridges of the foothills and the sides of canyons seem to form the favorite nesting haunts of this, as well as other poorwills. Elmer C. Aldrich (1935) gives a very good description of a locality in Tuolumne County, Calif., where a nest was found on July 5, 19M:

The altitude was about 5600 feet, and the general vegetation of the area consisted of yellow pines, incense cedars, white firs, black oak islands, a few species of eeanothus, and a little manzanita, with mountain misery covering most of the open hillside. The immediate location of the nest was in a little circular clearing about fifteen yards in diameter, surrounded by young yellow pines closely knit together by small, interwoven branches. The clearing contained three manzanita bushes and one ceanothus bush. The greater part of It was strewn with long dead pole-like logs, which appeared to be one of the basic requirements for the Poor-will’s protection. The entire north side of the opening was bordered by a large decayed log of a diameter of three feet, which, because of the common use by the Poor-will, came to be called “the log.”

The nest was found when we were coming from the north and upon advancing four yards after stepping over this log. When the adult flushed from the nest the observer’s foot was but eighteen inches from the site. The bird flew across the clearing into the edge of the dense forest, where It lit on a small log and watched without movement for fifteen minutes while pictures of the two light buff eggs were obtained.

Dr. William L. Holt writes to me that he found a nest near Banning, Calif., on June 13, 1909, on the bare ground on the north side of a sandy hill, nearly bare of vegetation. J. E. Patterson has sent me two excellent photographs (pls. 25, 26) of poorwills’ nests. The one taken in Stanislaus County, Calif., on June 23, 1934, was on the ground in open timber; the other, taken in Mariposa County, Calif., on June 21, 1933, was on the ground in a fire deadening on a hillside; both were in the Transition Zone.

A. J. van Rossern (1920) found a nest on April 18, 1919, a very early date, on the side of a canyon, where there was a heavy growth of wild lilac and white sage; “no attempt whatever seemed to have been made at constructing a nest, the eggs lying on the bare ground among pebbles, etc., in the shade of some dense brush that bordered upon a small open space.” The nest has also been found on bare rock, but is usually, at least partially, shaded by some bush, loose brush, brakes, or weeds. The birds are very apt to return to the exact spot to nest each year.

Eggs: As a rule the eggs of the dusky poorwill, two in number, are similar to the eggs of other poorwills, but van Rossem and Bowles (1920) write:

In a majority of the descriptions that are given for eggs of the various forms of the Poor-will, the color is stated as white, without markings, sometimes with a pinkish tinge. However, such was by no means the case with the set of eggs under discussion. Before blowing, the ground color was a strong salmon pink; but this, after blowing, turned to a clear, glossy, pinkish white, strongly suggesting eggs of the Merrill Parauque (Nyctidromus albicous merrilli), although the pink of the Poor-will eggs showed a closer approach to salmon. Around the larger ends was a rather dense wreath of lavender and dusky spots and dots, making the eggs look exceedingly like the marked eggs of some small petrel. * * * In the course of time many of the smaller dots have faded out, leaving only a comparatively few spots and dots to show where the heavy wreath was once located. The strong pinkish tinge has also very largely gone, In spite of the fact that the eggs have been carefully kept from exposure to the light.

The measurements of 40 eggs average 26.3 by 19.4 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 28.4 by 20.0, 27.7 by 21.1, 24.2 by 18.2, and 24.9 by 17.0 millimeters.

Behavior: Poorwills are notoriously close sitters, but the pair studied by Mr. Aldrich (1935) were unusually tame. He was repeatedly able to approach cautiously to within 3 or 4 feet of the incubating bird; once, at night, eight observers managed to approach within 2 feet, while the bird sat tight all the time. The next morning, “when we were but three feet from the nest, the bird’s large clear white spots on the tail identified it to be the male that was doing the incubating. Many pictures were taken, some as close as ten inches, without the slightest sign of fear on the part of the sitting bird. * * * Experiments were made to find the extent of his ‘bravery’ by touching him. While touching the head the first time he flattened out his wings and spread the fan-like tail over the tips of them showing all the tail spots. The large head was then brought far back on the shoulders. the cavernous mouth opened extremely wide showing the pink interior, and a low guttural hiss was emitted at short intervals.”

Later in the same day, at 2 p. m., he flushed the female from the nest and sat down 5 yards away to watch her return; “exactly ten and one-half minutes marked the reappearance of the same bird. She had flown from behind the log nearly to the top where she could barely look over and observe the surroundings. Immediately she started swaying from side to side very slowly and rhythmically for about five seconds before walking to the top of the log, each step in synchronization with the swaying. Here she paused for about twenty seconds, and then flew a few yards, within two and one-half feet of the nest, where she began swaying again. The rest of the distance to the nest was accomplished by this slow walking-swaying process, and she did not seem to get anxious and speed up as she came closer. Two short stops were made on the way.”

The dusky poorwill is tame and unsuspicious at other times also. Rollo H. Beek (1897) watched one at short range while it was catching insects on a road and finally succeeded in putting his hat over it, though it escaped; he says: “After watching it a while I crawled up within four feet and had a chance to watch it in the bright moonlight. It would fly perhaps twenty or thirty feet into the air after insects and return again within four or five feet of me. One time it flew up and evidently picked an insect off the leaf of a wild cherry tree, fluttering for several seconds in its endeavor to do so. It several times flew by me after food and returning would fly within a foot or so of my head and alight just in front of me.”

Voice: H. Gordon Heggeness writes to me of the song of the dusky poorwill as he heard it in the Sequoia National Park: “Sometimes early in the morning the poorwill would be heard~the calm, liquid notes carrying far on the cool air. On August 12,1935,a poorwill began singing back of my cabin at 2: 30 a. m. His most pleasing notes were heard continuously for the next half hour.”

Grinnell and Storer (1924) write: “It is heard most persistently at dusk of evening or in the early morning; but near Pleasant Valley on the morning of May 23, 1915, one of these birds suddenly broke out at 10 o’clock and uttered its poor-will-o 85 times (by count, within 2 or 3) at intervals of two or three seconds.”

R. H. Lawrence wrote to Major Bendire (1895) that, according to his hearing, “the words ‘Pearl-rab-it’ give, a fair idea of its call”; and that “when startled it gave quickly, two or three times in succession, a low, soft note, like ‘pweek,, pweek, pweek,’ which could only be heard a few yards away.”


Donald R. Dickey (1928) described and named this pale race of the poorwill from a fine series of specimens collected in the valley of the Colorado River by Mrs. May Canfield and Laurence M. Huey. As to its subspecific characters, he says that it is “nearest in color to the light type of Phalaenoptilw nultalli nuttalli (Audubon), which Brewster named nitidus and to which he gave the eminently fitting vernacular of the Frosted Poor-will, but averaging very much lighter. The backs of hueyi are pinkish tan, almost devoid of the silver frosting characteristic of more eastern birds, and with the size of the dark dorsal ‘oval eye’ marking greatly reduced, in many cases practically obsolete; under parts lighter throughout, with the dark hand below the white, collar narrower and of lighter tone, and with narrower barring of sides and flanks. Tail lighter and less contrastingly barred above and below.”

The 1931 Check-list gives the range of this race as the valley of the lower Colorado River, in southeastern California, southwestern Arizona, and extreme northeastern Baja California.

A. J. van Rossem (1936) took four poorwills near Bates Well, in south-central Arizona, that were somewhat intermediate between hueyi and nuttazli, though nearer the latter; this locality probably indicates the approximate area of intergradation. between the two races. “All were collected in an arrowweed-mesquite association along the borders of the dry stream bed. Conditions, both as to habitat and temperatures, closely approximated those found along the Lower Colorado River Valley, beyond the confines of which hueyi has not been detected.”

This poorwill probably does not differ materially in its habits from neighboring races of the species.


Three races of the poorwill are found on the peninsula of Baja California. The present form ranges from about latitude 301 southward to the Cape region; the dusky poorwill (californica) extends its range southward in the northwestern portion to about latitude 3001 chiefly on the Pacific slope; and the desert poorwill (hueyi) is found in the extreme northeastern portion.

The San Ignatio poorwill is a small, dark race. Dr. Joseph Grinnell, who described and named it, says (1928) that it is “similar to Ph. n. calilomimm in degree of general darkness but decidedly smaller, and with black areas on the individual feathers of scapulars, top of head and chest greatly reduced, in this respect resembling hueyi; terminal white of lateral rectrices greater in amount than in californies; light portions of general color scheme much darker than in hunyi or nuttallii, tinged with clay color rather than frosted–in this respect darker even than in average caliImniew; dark barring on posterior lower surface much more extensive and heavier than in hunyi or nuttazli.”

William Brewster (1902) referred the poor-wills of the Cape region to the race he named the frosted poorwill (Ph. n. nitidus), based on a pair collected by M. A. Frazar in the Sierra de la Laguna. Mr. Frazar said that on the mountains the poorwills did not begin singing until about the middle of May. “Their note is a pow-w-hoo, the first syllable given long, the accent on the second, and the last little more than a retraction of the breath. They were almost invariably in large oaks and very seldom on the ground. A female shot June 6 was undoubtedly mated and would have laid soon.

Nothing seems to be known about the nesting or other habits of this poorwill.

About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of He has been birding for over 30 years and has a world list of over 2000 species. He has served as treasurer of the Texas Ornithological Society, Sanctuary Chair of Dallas Audubon, Editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" web site and as a contributing editor for Birding Business magazine. Many of his photographs and videos can be found on the site.

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