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European Nightjar

European Nightjar
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order:Caprimulgiformes
Family:Caprimulgidae
Genus:Caprimulgus
Species:europaeus
Binomial name
Caprimulgus europaeus

The European Nightjar Caprimulgus europaeus is the only representative of the nightjar family in most of Europe and temperate Asia.

It is a late migrant, seldom appearing before the end of April or beginning of May. It occurs throughout northern and central Europe, and winters in Africa, as far south as the Cape.

In southern Europe, and the warmer parts of Africa and Asia, it is replaced by allied forms. In the British Isles it occurs in all suitable localities, but in the Shetlands and other northern islands it is only known as an occasional migrant.

Open heathy wastes, bracken-covered slopes and open woods are the haunts of the crepuscular Nightjar. The strange churring trill, its song, from which it derives some of its common names, is the surest means of identification.

It flies at dusk, often at sundown, a long-tailed, shadowy form with easy, silent moth-like flight; its strong and deliberate wingbeats alternate with graceful sweeps and wheels with motionless wings.

public domain image from a 1905 field guide (http://www.biologie.uni-hamburg.de/b-online/birds/naumann.htm)

The beautifully variegated plumage resembles the Wryneck, its wide gape and long wings are like a swifts, and its soft downy plumage and nocturnal habits are akin to the owls.

Its soft trill rises and falls as it vibrates on the variable evening breeze, or as the bird turns its head from side to side. The lower mandible vibrates and the throat is distended until the feathers stand out.

When it churrs the bird lies or crouches along a bough or rail, but it will sing from a post, and occasionally perch across a branch.

Lone on the fir-branch, his rattle-notes unvaried,
Brooding o'er the gloom, spins the brown eve-jar.

The similarity to the whirr of the old-fashioned spinning-wheel doubtless originated the name "Jenny-spinner". The duration of the trill may be for a fraction of a minute or for several minutes without a pause. It is continued at intervals during summer, and occasionally may be heard in August and September, just before the bird departs.

During the day the Nightjar lies silent upon the ground, often on a heap of stones, concealed by its plumage; it is most difficult to detect, looking like a bit of lichen-covered twig or a fragment of bark. With eyes almost closed it watches through tiny slits, rising suddenly, sometimes with a croak of alarm, but usually silently, when we almost tread upon it.

Its rounded head and short beak, together with its mottled dress, give it a peculiar reptilian appearance ; little wonder that one of its names is " Flying toad." " Nighthawk and "Fern-owl" are names derived from its habits, " Dorhawk" and " Moth-owl' from its food.

Its weird nocturnal note and silent ghostly flight have earned from the superstitious the name " Lich (corpse) Fowl " and " Puckeridge," and "Goatsucker " is due to wholly erroneous notions of its intentions when flying amongst animals.

When on the wing it has a soft call, and a sharper and repeated alarm, quik, quik, quik; but during courtship, and occasionally at other times, it uses a mechanical signal, a sharp cracking sound, caused by clapping the wings together over the back.

The male may be told from the female by the white spots on his wings and tail, and as he gracefully floats above her, with wings upraised at a sharp angle, he spreads wide his tail to show the white spots. On the ground both birds will swing the tail from side to side when excited. The Nightjar does not hunt with open mouth, as often depicted, but the huge gape opens wide for large insects, such as noctuid moths[?] and dor-beetles, which are snapped up with avidity. Crepuscular insects are its food.

No nest is made; the two elongated and elliptical eggs, creamy white mottled with brown, purple and liver are placed upon the bare ground amongst bracken or stones; the brooding bird, sitting closely, is their best protection. They are seldom laid before the end of May. The male occasionally broods. The female will "squatter" away to attract attention if disturbed, rolling and fluttering in a perfect frenzy.

The newly hatched young are covered with vermiculated grey and brown down, livid blue skin showing' on the naked nape and back; the combed or pectinated claw of the adult, the use of which is unknown, is represented by a horny unserrated plate. The note is a querulous cheep.

They quickly become active and the parents soon remove them if the nest has been visited. At times a second brood is reared. Emigration begins in August, and by the middle of September most birds have left.

The plumage of the adult Nightjar is lichen-grey, barred and streaked with buff, chestnut and black. The under parts are barred. White spots on primaries and white tips to the outer tail feathers are characters of the male ; in the young male these are buff. The bill is black, the legs reddish brown.

Length, 10.5 ins. Wing, 7.6 ins.



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