Bird Watcher's General Store


Dear Bird Folks,

I live in East Orleans (MA) and last month I heard a bird singing at night. Iím pretty sure the bird was a Chuck-willís-widow, but my friend, Ray, says it must have been a Whip-poor-will since Chuck-willís-widows donít live in this area. This has caused a friendly argument between the two of us, so weíve decided to let you determine who is right. Am I likely to hear a Chuck-willís-widow in East Orleans?

Ė Sarah, E. Orleans, MA

I hate this, Sarah,

I hate having to choose one side over the other. Itís a lose-lose. Like an umpire in baseball, at the end of this, no matter what I say, somebodyís going to be mad at me. (And I donít need to create any more reasons for people to be mad at me.) If I had any common sense I would automatically agree with Ray since heís probably bigger than I am. But if I had any common sense, I wouldnít do half the stuff I do everyday, so letís get on with it.

Chuck-willís-widows and Whip-poor-wills are two birds that have several things in common. Both are nocturnal, both eat insects, and both have ridiculously long names. And in case you didnít already know it, they get their ridiculously long names from their song, which they repeat over and over and over. Historically, Cape Cod has been the summer home to a healthy population of Whip-poor-wills and home to zero Chuck-willís-widows. In recent years, however, the number of Whip-poor-wills has decreased while more Chuck-willís-widows are being reported. At this point, Sarah, you appear to be winning the argument. However, I still have it in my head that Ray is a big guy and I donít want to get him mad. So Iím personally going to drive to East Orleans tonight and listen for the mystery bird myself in hopes of getting some firsthand proof. Iíll be right back.

Iím back from my night of walking through the wilds of E. Orleans and I didnít hear a single bird. I didnít hear any Chuck-willís-widows, or Whip-poor-wills, or ďwillsĒ of any kind. Itís possible there may have been birds out there, but there is no way I could have heard them above the sound of all those automatic lawn sprinklers. (I forgot what East Orleans was like.)

Even though my birding trip failed to prove anything, Iíve already decided to declare you the winner. Why? For the past several summers there have been a number of reports of Chuck-willís-widows being heard in East Orleans, especially in the area of Pochet Island. Besides you, other people, including serious birders have reported hearing them. The key word here is ďhearing.Ē Very few people ever get to see a Chuck-will's-widow. Finding Edward Snowden is easier than seeing one of these birds.

Chuck-willís-widows arenít the most visually striking birds in the bird book. On a scale of 1 to 10, they are about a .5, or less. They are stocky birds, with big heads, no necks and shorter legs. The plumage of a Chuck-willís-widow is made of several colors and all of them are brown, with a splash of dingy gray just to add some pizzazz. Chuck-willís-widows donít care that they are dullards. They are nocturnal birds and need to sleep during the day, so being cryptic is how they survive. Chucks are so confident in their camouflage that they donít even bother hiding during the day. Most of the time they sleep on low, exposed branches or right on the ground. One day, years ago, a Chuck-willís-widow was seen on a tree branch in the Beech Forest in Provincetown. A birder told me the exact tree and which branch the bird was sleeping on. But when I went to look for it, the bird was gone. I figured it must have flown away. However, several other birders, who passed the same tree just after me, did see the sleeping bird. (HmmmÖIím not sure if Iíve proven how good Chuck-willís-widows are at remaining hidden, or how much of a lousy birder I am. Remind me not to tell that story again.)

When most folks think of nocturnal birds, they naturally think of owls. Owls use the cover of darkness to grab unsuspecting prey with their sharp talons. Chuck-willís-widows have no sharp talons. In fact, they barely have any feet at all. Instead, they hunt by flying around in the dark with their enormous mouths wide open, scooping up insects as they go. They are especially fond of moths and beetles, but they also have been known to eat small night-migrating birds, bats and the occasional tiny vampire.

During the winter months most Chuck-willís-widows live in the tropics, but when summer arrives they fly to their U.S. breeding grounds. Typically, these birds donít breed much farther north than Virginia-ish. So Ray was sort of right. But it seems that some chucks have a bit of wanderlust. At first a few of them were found on Long Island, then on Nantucket and now on Cape Cod. Each summer several towns, from Wellfleet to Falmouth, report hearing Chuck-willís-widowsí distinctive calls. Thatís the good news. The bad news is their nests are nearly impossible to find. Frustrated researchers continue trying to find nesting Chuck-willís-widows, but with no luck. (Ha! Iím not the only who canít see these invisible birds.)

Based on circumstantial evidence, Sarah, Iím going to agree with you on this one. Chuck-will's-widows are indeed hanging out in East Orleans. Whether they are breeding or not is another question. If you have any spare time, perhaps you could try to locate a nest. But if you go out, hereís some advice: Be sure to wear a raincoat. Sneaking by those lawn sprinklers can be tricky.

Artwork by Catherine Clark

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