New York Natural Heritage Program
Chuck-will's-widow
Antrostomus carolinensis (Gmelin, 1789)
Birds

General Description [-]
The Chuck-will's-widow is the largest North American nightjar. It is 12'' in length, cinnamon brown in color, and cryptically patterned.

Identifying Characteristics [-]
Chuck-will's-widows are buff to reddish cinnamon brown with a cryptic, or camoflouged mottled pattern including some black and mottled brown colorings on the upperparts. This coloration allows them to blend in to their surroundings when roosting on the ground. Males have a whitish throat, while in females and juveniles it appears pale buff. Both sexes and ages have a white collar going halfway around the neck and have an olive and blackish-colored breast with the rest of the underparts appearing reddish brown, to buff, to dark brown. Their tails are long and rounded. (Straight and Cooper 2000, National Geographic 1999) The song is a loud whistled "chuck-will's-wid-ow or chuck wee-O, wee-O" with the first note inaudible at a distance. Songs are primarily given at dawn or dusk or during moonlit nights.There are numerous calls reported, the most common is the growl and cluck which may be given separately or in a short sequence by either the male and female (Mendel and Jenkinson 1971). They are given in sequence in social interactions involving more than one individual, while growls may be given separately during defensive interactions or during flight. Chuck-will's-widows do not construct a nest. Instead, the female typically lays 2 eggs (range 1 to 4) on the ground in leaf litter, pine needles, or on the bare ground. The eggs are white to very pale grey with variable light drab brown to grey markings. (Straight and Cooper 2000)

Characters Most Useful for Identification [-]
Because this cryptic species is most often heard rather than seen, its song is the most useful character for identification. It is a loud whistled "chuck-will's-wid-ow or chuck wee-O, wee-O" with the first note inaudiable at a distance. (Straight and Cooper 2000, National Geographic 1999)

Best Life Stage for Proper Identification [-]
The adults are easiest to identify by both sight and sound. Since Chuck-will's-widows are nocturnal, they are easiest identified aurally, by the males song. They sing most frequently at dawn or dusk or on moonlit nights.

Behavior [-]
Chuck-will's-widows are both nocturnal and crepuscular. They are active at night and frequently forage at dawn and dusk. They can sometimes be found on dirt roads at night, presumably dust-bathing. Individual territory sizes have not be recorded but it is known that both males and females may respond to taped song playback indicating some degree of territoriality (Straight and Cooper 2000). This species does not build a nest. Instead, the female typically lays 2 eggs (range 1 to 4) on the ground in leaf litter, pine needles, or on the bare ground (Straight and Cooper 2000). Females typically incubate but males have been noted to as well (Ayers and Ayers 1970, Straight and Cooper 2000). Chuck-will's-widows display some unique defensive and mating behaviors as well. Males may chase other males during territorial disputes while emiting a low growling sound. They take up a defensive posture by opening mouth, hissing and drooping their wings and fanning their tail. (Straight and Cooper 2000, Mengel and Jekinson 1971) When flushed from the nest, females may try to confuse predators with a distraction display by flying low away from the nest and dropping to the ground several times or by walking away hissing with drooped wings and fanned tail (Ayers and Ayers 1970, Harper 1938, Wilson 1959, Straight and Cooper 2000). Males perform a courtship display by puffing themselves up (a combiniation of ruffling feathers and air intake), dropping their wings, fanning their tail and moving in a quick jerking fashion while calling (Straight and Cooper 2000).

Diet [-]
Chuck-will's-widows are aerial foragers using their "whiskers" to capture a variety of insects such as moths, beetles, and winged ants while flying low a few feet above ground vegetation (Straight and Cooper 2000). They may also jump up quickily from the ground to catch an insect flying overhead. Occasionally, they consume small birds such as warblers, flycatchers, wrens, hummingbirds, and sparrows or even bats as well (Straight and Cooper 2000).
Chuck-will's-widow Images
click to enlarge
The Best Time to See
Males sing with greatest intensity and are therefore, easiest to detect early in the season before the nesting stage (May in New York) (Straight and Cooper 2000). They continue to sing throughout incubation but taper off during the fledgling stage and may start up again late in the season before migration. Most records in New York have been from May and June. Extreme dates are April 29th and July 22 (Levine 1998).
J F M A M J J A S O N D
Present Breeding
The time of year you would expect to find Chuck-will's-widow present (blue shading) and breeding (orange shading) in New York.
Similar Species
  • Whip-Poor-Will (Caprimulgus vociferus)
    Chuck-will's-widows appear similar to the more common Whip-poor-will but are larger and more reddish-brown in color. Chuck-will's-widows have a dark breast while Whip-poor-wills have a dark throat. Whip-poor-wills also have more white on the tail.