The Chuck-will’s-widow is one of the birds named for its song; however, the first chuck of the 4-syllable song may be difficult to hear at a distance. This is a well-camouflaged nocturnal species and is much easier to hear than see. On moonlit nights after dusk and before dawn, from late April into August, it will often sit on a quiet dirt road watching for flying insects. During the day it usually roosts while sitting lengthwise on low limbs of trees. The Chuck-will's-widow is a migratory species and breeds in the southeastern United States from southern Iowa and eastern Texas eastward to the coast. It winters from southern Florida and central Mexico southward through the Caribbean, Central and South America.
Description: Chuck-will's-widow is extremely well camouflaged in brown, black and gray plumage. It has a large head, a brown throat, and a short, wide bill for catching flying insects. In flight, the wings and tail are long and rounded. The male and female are similar in appearance, but the male has white in tail, and the female does not.
Weight: 4.2 oz
Voice: This species repeats its 4-syllable name, chuck-will’s-widow, in loud, clear, emphatic whistles. The first note is often inaudible.
- Eastern Whip-poor-will are smaller, more gray-brown in color, and have a black, not brown throat. They have a 3-syllable song, but the songs of these two species can be confused.
- Common Nighthawk has a smaller head, longer, more pointed wings with bold white patches, and a notched tail.
Habitat: Open deciduous, coniferous, and mixed woodlands, often near edge. In Tennessee, also found in cedar-dominated woodlands.
Diet: Evening-flying insects, especially moths and beetles.
Nesting and reproduction: Females will often nest in the same spot in consecutive years.
Clutch Size: Usually 2 eggs.
Incubation: The female incubates for 20 days.
Fledging: The young are able to run soon after hatching, and the female may move them a short distance from the nest site until they are able to fly at 14 to 16 days.
Nest: There is no nest structure. Eggs are laid on the ground or on dead leaves, in wooded areas with an open understory.
Status in Tennessee: Chuck-will's-widow is a fairly common summer resident of Middle and West Tennessee, and below 1,500 feet in East Tennessee. They arrive in late April and depart in late August. Numbers appear to be declining in the state, as well as rangewide. They are more often heard then seen.
Dynamic map of Chuck-wills-widow eBird observations in Tennessee
- The Chuck-will's-widow belongs to the family of Goatsuckers, which are found in the Old World as well as the New. This name is based on an ancient belief that these birds fed on goats' milk at night.
- Like other goatsuckers, the eyes of the Chuck-will's-widow reflect light directly back toward the source. They will often sit on gravel roads after dusk, so their orange to red eye-shine may be seen with the headlights of a car or a flashlight.
- The oldest known Chuck-will's-widow was 14 years 10 months old.
Obsolete English Names: twixt-hell-and-the-white-oak
Best places to see in Tennessee: Chuck-will's-widows are most likely to be heard on moonlit nights between late April and late July. They are most likely seen at rest on a quiet dirt road after sunset or just before sunrise.
For more information:
Sources:Nicholson, C. P. 1997. Atlas of Breeding Birds of Tennessee. Univ. Tennessee Press, Knoxville.
Robinson J. C. 1990. An Annotated Checklist of the Birds of Tennessee. Univ. Tennessee Press, Knoxville.
Sibley, D. A. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. A. A. Knopf, New York, NY.
Straight, C. A., and R. J. Cooper. 2000. Chuck-will's-widow (Caprimulgus carolinensis). The Birds of North America, No. 499 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.Sibley, D. A. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. A. A. Knopf, New York, NY.
Consider using the online bird checklist program at eBird to help us understand bird populations and distributions in Tennessee. Click here to see how.