Who’s Chuck Will and Why Did He Die?



Here’s the good news; we need some these days.  Chuck Will did not die and he has no widow, alone in the world, fending for herself.  “Chuck-will’s-widow” is just another crazy bird name, mimicking the nocturnal call of this elusive bird.  Chasing it down in southwest Florida and confirming its identification added a welcomed diversion to an otherwise monotonous lock-down week.

Eastern Whip-poor-will, Caprimulgus vociferous             photo by A. Sternick

It all started innocently enough at the end of a sunset walk to the beach with my better half.  We sorely needed some outdoor exercise and fresh air; no birding allowed.  Then we heard it and I couldn’t ignore it; an unusual but vaguely familiar call repeated over and over.  The bird was some distance away and I missed the first shorter and softer “chuck” syllable, but heard the following “will’s widow” and mistakenly ID’ed it as the three syllable call of the Eastern Whip-poor-will.

Eastern Whip-poor-will                                             photo by M. Burdette

Luckily Mel, a fellow birder, returned to the site the next evening and recorded the entire song.  He, with a big assist from the local eBird monitor, corrected my mistake.  Indeed it was a Chuck-will’s widow, a life bird for both of us, but still without a picture or visual confirmation.

Whip-poor-will, by J.J. Audubon

Both Chuck-will’s-widow and the Eastern and Western Whip-poor-wills, along with the slightly larger but otherwise similar Nighthawks, are members of the Caprimulgidae family and commonly called Nightjars.  This interesting family of birds are much more commonly heard than seen.  I’m going to go out on a limb and declare that the Nightjars are the most difficult land-based birds to see, even if one crawls out on their limb.  The plumage is superbly adapted to blend with leaves and tree bark.  At my first sighting of the Common Nighthawk a patient veteran birder spent several minutes with me before I zeroed in on the bird, a mere lump lying on a horizontal limb.

Common Nighthawk, Chordeiles minor

Don’t sign onto a birder’s tour to New Zealand looking for Nightjars.  It’s practically the only place on Earth with none.  Ninety-eight species inhabit the remainder of the globe, but despite this wide distribution the secretive birds are poorly understood.  Ancient civilizations referred to them as “goat suckers” and others, more recently as “bug eaters”.  I’m told that the moniker for the University of Nebraska used to be “The Bug Eaters”, I suppose with the appropriate bird drawing on their uniforms, before they understandably changed it to “The Cornhuskers”.

Eastern Whip-poor-will                                       photo by A. Sternick

These birds have some peculiar and questionable traits.  They don’t even bother with nests.  Just lay the eggs on the ground and hope for the best.  They like to perch on the highway, perhaps hoping to blend in with the asphalt, but often end up as road kill.  You’ll never see these birds walking.  Their legs are positioned far posteriorly, better suited for a perch than a stroll.

Eastern Towhee, Pipilo erythrophthalmus

The name Nightjar apparently comes from their jarring call after the sun sets.  Rather than jarring, the call to me is melodious and evocative.  It reminds me again of the importance of learning to ID birds by their songs and calls.  As a lock-down mind game I made a list of birds who are named for their song.

Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia

For the first group the name is merely descriptive:  Song Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow, Mourning Dove, Mockingbird, Laughing Gull, Whooping Crane, Warbler, and Cackling Goose.

Black-billed Cuckoo, Coccyzus erythropthalmus

For the second group the name is onomatopoetic, so helpful in the field for linking the call to a bird.  In addition to Chuck-will’s-widow and the Whip-poor-will I give you the Cuckoo, Chickadee, Phoebe, Bobwhite, Bobolink, Peewee, Veery, Dickcissel, Willet, Grackle, Towhee, Killdeer, Chat, Chachalaca, and Chukar.  I welcome any additions I may have missed.

Eastern Phoebe, Sayornis phoebe

We returned to the beach parking lot the following night, armed with cameras and a fancy flash light.  It was hot and humid with more than the usual number of biting no-see-ums and mosquitos, but we were dedicated birders on a mission.  Our eBird reports had sparked interest in another young birder and his family who joined our quest.

Black-capped Chickadee, Poecile atricapillus

They say you can use a flash light and occasionally detect Nightjars by carefully scanning the underbrush and low branches for their retinal shine.  No such luck this time.  Bugs and bites were taking a toll and just as we were packing it in a phantom dark shape flew into the tree right above us.  It immediately began the repetitive “Chuck-will’s-widow” song loud and clear.  We could’t find it with the light and it did not stay long, but a small group of satisfied birders could at least claim a sighting of sorts and tick off another life bird.

Killdeer, Charadrius vociferous

On the way home it occurred to me what a suspicious sight we scruffy birders would have conjured up if one of Naple’s finest had cruised by.  We three, huddled in the darkest corner of the deserted parking lot at dusk, as if transacting an illicit deal.  The streets were all empty and eerily quiet due to the virus.  If he stopped and asked what was up I would have honestly replied that we were waiting for Chuck Will’s widow.  “And who might she be”, he would ask as he radioed downtown for backup.

Who Named That Bird Anyway?



Green Heron                                                click on any photo to zoom

I was standing on a wooden observation deck overlooking a pond in the Florida cypress swamp when an inquisitive new birder asked me the name of the brown bird posed a low branch over the water.  “Oh, that’s a Green Heron.”  A look of confusion came over her face.  “I know”, I added  “someday we’ll figure out who named the bird anyway.”  A more descriptive name might be a Brown or Hunch-backed Heron.  There are other bird names that cause similar confusion.

Take for instance the Ovenbird.  Where did that name come from?  My research fails me.  Why not a sink, refrigerator, or stove bird?  Linnaeus gave it the species name aurocapilla which means “golden-haired” in Latin.  That makes much more sense to me.


Ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapilla), note the golden hair

Then there’s the Veery, a member of the Turdidae or Thrush family.  Don’t you have to be very something, like very big, or very loud, or very good?  Research in this instance did help.  The name is derived from the downward veering sound of its call.  I can live with that.


I have no Veery picture but these are Rufous-bellied Thrush photographed in Buenos Aires.

What about the Tattler?  That was the very worst thing you could be called when I was in elementary school, right up there with stool pigeon.  Yet someone gave this west coast shorebird, a member of the Scolopacidae family, this derogatory name.  Let me know if anyone is aware of the back story here.


Long-billed Dowitcher, a fellow Scolopacidae

Then there are the “P” birds, Phainopepla and Pyrrhuloxia.  Try pronouncing or spelling these to the new birder in the field.  If you are Greek however, it’s no problem and the names make perfect sense.  Phainopepla is the furthest northern member of the Central American Ptilogonatidae or Silky Flycatcher family.  Phain pepla is from the Greek meaning “shining robe”.  Given the appearance in my shot below this finally makes some sense.

Phainopepla (shining robe)

Phainopepla (shining robe)

Pyrrhuloxia is also from the Greek; pyrrhus meaning red and loxos meaning oblique, and referring to the peculiar short crooked bill of this bird of the southwest desert.  I prefer the sometimes used “desert cardinal”.


Pyrrhuloxia (female, the male would have much more red around the face and breast)

Another puzzler is the Godwit, pictured below.  A little internet research took me to an etymology expert Ted Nesbitt.  He claims this bird’s name first appeared in the European literature in Latin about 1544 as “Godwittam” and later translated into English as “Godwitte”.    “Wit” means “to know” making Godwit, “to know God”.  Still unanswered is how this explains the bird’s saintly name.  As Nesbitt said, “God only knows.”


Marbled Godwit                                            photo by Andy Sternick

Have you ever been called a Booby in the school yard?  That’s right up there with “tattler” on the list of childhood insults.  The bird name comes from the Spanish slang “bobo”, meaning stupid.  Apparently these people-friendly and naive birds would land on the Spanish ships in the Caribbean and were easily captured and served as dinner.

blue footed booby

Blue-footed Boobies                                           photo by Andy Sternick


Masked Booby, perhaps trying to deceive the Spaniards, photo by Andy Sternick

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Bananaquit                                                      photo by Andy Sterrnick

I’ll quit with the Bananaquit, a beautiful bird of the New World tropics first described by Linnaeus in 1758.  They apparently love bananas and once they start eating they just can’t…