Caprimulgidae – Nightjars

They become active at night, hide in plain sight, and fool you in bright daylight

These birds are often mistaken for owls due to their nocturnal habits and large eyes; however, they are not closely related to owls at all. Instead, they are part of the order Caprimulgiformes, including the whip-poor-wills, nighthawks, and the European nightjar.

Nightjars have cryptic plumage that provides excellent camouflage against the forest floor or branches where they rest during the day. Their mottled patterns of browns, grays, and buffs make them virtually indistinguishable from their surroundings, enabling them to avoid detection by predators and to ambush prey.

Adapted for a crepuscular and nocturnal lifestyle, nightjars have large, forward-facing eyes that allow for maximum light absorption, enhancing their ability to see in low-light conditions. Their eyes are equipped with a reflective layer called the tapetum lucidum, increasing their sensitivity to light.

Their feeding strategy is as unique as their appearance. Nightjars are aerial insectivores, catching moths, beetles, and other flying insects on the wing. They have wide mouths and a special structure called a rictal bristle – feather-like projections around the mouth that may help them snare their insect prey in the dark.

Nightjars are mostly heard rather than seen, known for their haunting and melodic calls that echo through the night. These calls are often the only indication of their presence and are used to establish territories and attract mates.

When it comes to nesting, nightjars do not build a traditional nest. Instead, they lay their eggs on the ground, relying on their plumage to conceal them. Both the eggs and chicks are well-camouflaged, and the parents use a “freeze” behavior to avoid detection by predators.

Despite being widespread and found in many parts of the world, nightjars face several threats, including habitat destruction and the decline in insect populations due to pesticide use. Their nocturnal habits and secretive nature have indeed made it challenging for scientists to study them in-depth, leading to a limited understanding of their complex behaviors and population dynamics.