Sigrid Sanders

No Chuck-will's-widow on a Summer Night

No chuck-will's-widow sang this summer near our home. The absence of its song in long warm twilights and sultry summer nights felt like the loss of an old, close friend. There's a hole in the world where it used to be.

A chuck-will's-widow is a southern bird of night and twilight that feeds on insects caught as it flies, often low over the ground. Like its close relative, the whip-poor-will, it sings its name - a quick chuck! followed by a warbled hiccupping WI-ill's-WI-dow. The song has a bright glowing quality, and shines like a ray of moonlight across a shadowy background of katydids, crickets, the snort of a deer, the rustle of grass and leaves, and soft, padding footsteps in the dark. It's a familiar song in the country here, a natural part of a southern summer night.

At close range, an enthusiastically singing chuck-will's-widow can be amazingly loud, and that charming song can become painfully monotonous after two or three hours of losing sleep. Once, several years ago, I got up out of bed in desperation and stomped out into the moonlit night, wading through damp grass and shrubs in my night-shirt and boots with a flashlight, trying to frighten one away that was singing from somewhere under the bushes right outside our window. It didn't work.

But those times were few, and well worth the pleasure of their company the rest of the summer.

Chuck-will's-widows are commonly found in the southeastern part of North America, while the breeding range of whip-poor-wills extends over a more northern and middle part of the continent - but the range of the two species overlaps here in northern Georgia, so we have both. Whip-poor-wills, it seems, are more likely to be found in forested areas, while chuck-will's-widows prefer more open woodlands with a mixture of woods and open areas like clearings, old fields and forest edges. Because of their nocturnal habits, they are both seldom seen, and we know them mostly by their songs.

The appearance of a chuck-will's-widow is, at the same time, strange and exquisite. Considerably larger than whip-poor-wills, their coloring is reddish brown, heavily patterned with streaks and bars of black, gray and buff. They have a short bill, long wings, and a long, rounded tail. In many field guide illustrations and photos, they are shown low, huddled down, as if hugging the ground, and appear flat-headed and squat, often with eyes half-closed - and I'm sure this is how they must look during the day or on a nest when their cryptic plumage camouflages them well against a background of dead brown leaves and litter. Perched upright on a branch one shows a quite different, owl-like shape. In flight the mouth gapes widely, surrounded by bristles which help in capturing flying insects, their main prey. They also are known, on occasion, to catch bats and even small birds that happen to be out too late at night.

The one time I saw a chuck-will's-widow, I was watching bats at twilight, circling and diving around in a pale sky fading to gray. It was late enough so that colors were almost gone and the trees were becoming dark silhouettes. A large, quiet bird flew in and settled on a bare branch of a tree not far away from where I sat. At first I thought it must be an owl. It sat out in full view on the leafless branch, but because of the fading light was difficult to see well, even through binoculars - though its warm brown color still showed up against the gray-green shadows.

After a few minutes, it suddenly flew up and toward me with a moth-like fluttering of wings and appeared to catch an insect in the air, then returned to the same perch as before. Again, it sat quietly for several minutes, turning its strange head just slightly to one side and another. Then it flew up again and directly over me, giving me a clear view of its shape and no further doubt about what it was, though it was much larger than I had imagined.

We had often heard a chuck-will's-widow singing from what sounded like nearby, but this was the only time I ever saw it - and this one was completely quiet. Because of its silence, and because of the deepening obscurity of twilight, it felt like an apparition, but at the same time, its shape and pattern of flight were unmistakable. I'd like to say I saw the big mouth gaping open for its insect prey - but I didn't. That I could only imagine.

A great deal about the natural history of chuck-will's-widows is not yet known. They are not considered threatened or endangered officially, but reliable population estimates are hard to come by. Although they're known as southeastern birds, they have expanded their range more to the north and west over the past several decades, but there is concern about their future because of loss of habitat, especially in places like this part of the Southeast, where woods and fields are being replaced by suburban development. The way chuck-will's-widows have disappeared around my own neighborhood seems a good illustration of what is undoubtedly happening in other places as well.

For many years, in our current home in Oconee County, the song of a chuck-will's-widow was a regular part of spring and summer nights. Then one spring about four years ago, it was unusually late in the season before I heard one. The rest of that summer it did not sing near our house as often as usual, as if it only stopped by once in a while. The next year, its song was even less frequent, and further away. Last year, I could only hear one chuck-will's-widow singing a very long way away in the distance, now and then. And this year - none at all. Not one.

It's not hard to figure out why. Although our neighborhood includes and is surrounded by a band of woods, creeks and old fields, beyond the creeks, a good deal of development has taken place, with woods and fields replaced by homes, roads, lawns and other suburban structures - not to mention lights. So the habitat chuck-will's-widows need is disappearing here.

This is not to point a finger at anyone else. I live in a neighborhood myself, and my own home - though almost 25 years old now and not new when we first moved in - has played its part in replacing the natural habitat here with suburban development. It's a hard fact to face up to: Those of us who most enjoy and want to live with the natural world - to hear a chuck-will's widow at night, see fireflies, maybe hear a bobcat scream or watch a line of wild turkeys passing by - may be doing the most to hasten the disappearance of these things. I don't know. I can't quite give up the hope that somehow we can work out a way to live with nature, rather than confining ourselves to urban environments and preserving the natural world only in zoo-like parks, refuges and "special places."

But the fact that no chuck-will's-widow sang this summer in our neighborhood seems to me worth reporting, something that should not happen without some notice. As far as seems to be known, their populations overall are not in serious trouble yet, but here - and I suspect in other places as well - I doubt we'll hear its song again. And I will miss it.

© 2009 Sigrid Sanders