Chuck-will's-widows are noctural foragers with some unique feeding habits. They mostly consume insects out of the air by catching them with their whisker-like bristles, and scooping them into their bills. They have, on occasion, been observed to chase down a smaller bird or bat and swallow them whole, if the opprotunity presents itself!
The Chuck-will's-widow is at its northern range extent in New York and is a relatively recent addition to the state's avifauna with the first nest discovered in 1975. New York's population is restricted to pine and oak barrens, shrublands, maritime dunes, and barrier beaches on the southern half of Long Island and Staten Island (McGowan and Corwin 2008, NY Natural Heritage 2010). Global climate change is a threat to this species as the resulting sea-level rise and increased storm frequency is expected to reduce the availability of barrier beach habitat. Its coastal shrubland and oak-pine barren habitat are also under threat from increasing urbanization and fragmentation. The combination of factors including restricted habitat availability, occurring at the northern extent of its range, and pervasive threats, all may contribute to the recent decline and small population numbers in the state.
The distribution in New York declined by 62% in New York between the First (1980-85) and the Second (2000-05) Breeding Bird Atlas (McGowan and Corwin 2008). There are currently only four known summer locations in the state and breeding has only been confirmed at one of them.
Despite recent declines, the long-term trends of Chuck-wills-widow's in New York have increased since historical times. The northern range extent previously was in southern Maryland (Davis 1972). They were first documented in New Jersey in 1922 and the first specimen was taken in New York in 1933 (Bull 1964). There were just three records of the species in the state until 1969 and then a rapid increase with 16 records between 1969-1975 (including some returning individuals) (Davis 1975, McGowan and Corwin 2008). Breeding was not confirmed in the state until 1975 when the first nest was found (Davis 1975, Andrle and Carroll 1988). Numbers are thought to have peaked during the first breeding bird atlas in the mid-1980s and subsequently declined (Levine et al 1998).
Although Chuck-will's-widows occupy a few different habitat types on Long Island, all are subject to threats. Global climate change is a threat to this species, as the resulting sea-level rise is expected to reduce the availability of barrier beach habitat. The only known breeding population was noted to have vacated an area where stands of exotic Japanese black pines (Pinus thunbergii) on Long Island have not been maintained. Declines of this exotic tree species that provide habitat for Chuck-will's-widows, have likely contributed to the decline of the species elsewhere on Long Island (McGowan and Corwin 2008). Chuck-will's-widows natural pitch pine barrens habitat and coastal shrublands are also threatened by fragmentation and increasing urbanization on Long Island. Because the population exists in low numbers over a limited distribution with few nesting locations, it is also subject to random, or stochastic, environmental threats such as flooding, or random biological events such as a low year of productivity or high year of mortality due to disease. This species is also at risk of being struck by cars while landing on roads, especially dirt roads when dust-bathing at night. Also range overlap with Whip-poor-wills may cause some degree of competition for nesting sites and foraging opportunities, although there does appear to be separation of the two species by habitat; Chuck-will's-widows preferring more open locations and Whip-poor-wills more forested (Carrie et al. 2000, Cooper 1982). Declines in insect food sources due to pesticides and biological control are also a plausible concern.
Management for this species should consider the perpetuation and protection of native pitch pine barrens and coastal shrubland habitats on Long Island. Of particular importance, would be preventing further fragmentation of the pine barrens located in central-eastern Long Island. Because Chuck-will's-widows occur in so few locations in the state, best management practices may include maintaining Japanese black pines stands in some locations that are known to be occupied by Chuck-will's-widows, until sufficient natural habitats are available. Limiting development on barrier beaches, coastal shrublands and pine barrens will help ensure habitat remains on Long Island for this species in the future. The use of fire may be explored to perpetuate successional habitats and pine barrens but should be used with caution to maintain enough cover and foraging resources in occupied sites. Research into best management practices for this species is greatly needed.
There are many gaps on the general biology, life history and demographic characteristics of Chuck-will's-widows throughout their range. Although molt characteristics, breeding and defensive behaviors and vocalizations have been well-documented most aspects needs further study (Straight and Cooper 2000). More information is needed on survival rates, fecundity, territory sizes, population sizes, diet, habitat requirements, threats limiting populations, and species response to changing landuse and climate (Straight and Cooper 2000). Due to this species' method of foraging over agricultural fields and pastures (Straight and Cooper 2000), research into toxin loads that could be accumulated from invertebrate prey sources are warranted. Further inventory and monitoring including demographic studies to determine nesting success are needed. These will be useful to determine long-term trends in survival, population size, and productivity. Studies on best mangement practices for this species are also greatly needed.
Chuck-will's-widows inhabit dry and open pine and oak woods, pine barrens, and barrier beaches on Staten Island and Long Island (Levine 1998, McGowan and Corwin 2008). Where Chuck-will's-widows and Whip-poor-wills co-occur the latter is found in more forested habitat while the Chuck--will's-widows prefer more open habitats (Cooper 1982, Straight and Cooper 2000). One individual on Long Island was heard calling from oak woods with a greenbrier (Smilax sp.) understory. The first NY nest was found on the ground in a grove of Japanese black pines.
The range of the Chuck-will's-widow in New York is limited to the southern half of Staten Island and Long Island in pine oak barrens, mairtime dunes and beaches, and coastal shrubland habitats.
Breeding: Chuck-will's-widows are primarily restricted to the southeastern coastal plain and the Mississippi river valley reaching their northern limit in New York (McGowan and Corwin 2008). They occur in eastern Kansas east to central Indiana and Long Island (and probably Martha's Vineyard), south to eastern Oklahoma, southern Texas, the Gulf Coast, and southern Florida (AOU 1998). Nonbreeding: Chuck-will's-widows overwinter in southeastern Texas, southern Louisiana, and coastal Alabama south through Middle America to Colombia; and from central Florida and the Bahamas south through the Greater Antilles to the northern Lesser Antilles (Saba, St. Martin, and Barbuda) (AOU 1998).
The Chuck-will's-widow is the largest North American nightjar. It is 12'' in length, cinnamon brown in color, and cryptically patterned.
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)
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)
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.
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).
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).
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).
The time of year you would expect to find Chuck-will's-widow active and reproducing in New York.
Antrostomus carolinensis (Gmelin, 1789)
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New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Checklist of the amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals of New York State, including their protective status. Nongame Unit, Wildlife Resources Center, Delmar, NY.
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Wilson, L. P. 1959. Chuck-will's-widow nestings. The Migrant 30:53-54.
This guide was authored by: Kelly A. Perkins
Information for this guide was last updated on: June 20, 2011
Please cite this page as:
New York Natural Heritage Program. 2023. Online Conservation Guide for Antrostomus carolinensis. Available from: https://guides.nynhp.org/chuck-wills-widow/. Accessed June 6, 2023.