Nightjar

Caprimulgus ruficollis, Eurostopodus argus, and others

Last updated: November 2, 2022
Verified by: AZ Animals Staff
© iStock.com/Albert Wright

There are 97 nightjar species across 20 genera!

Nightjar Scientific Classification

Kingdom
Animalia
Phylum
Chordata
Class
Aves
Order
Caprimulgiformes
Family
Caprimulgidae
Genus
Eurostopodus, Caprimulgus, and others
Scientific Name
Caprimulgus ruficollis, Eurostopodus argus, and others

Read our Complete Guide to Classification of Animals.


Nightjar Facts

Prey
ants, flies, mosquitos, moths, grasshoppers, beetles, midges, and caterpillars
Main Prey
Flying insects
Name Of Young
Nestlings, fledglings
Group Behavior
  • Solitary/Pairs
Fun Fact
There are 97 nightjar species across 20 genera!
Estimated Population Size
Unknown
Biggest Threat
habitat loss, road collisions, and nest predators
Most Distinctive Feature
Flat head and large eyes
Distinctive Feature
Long, pointed wings
Wingspan
20 inches
Incubation Period
16 to 30 days
Age Of Independence
One month
Age Of Fledgling
16 to 21 days
Habitat
Open country with some vegetation
Predators
Foxes, hedgehogs, domestic dogs, crows, owls, and snakes
Diet
Insectivore
Lifestyle
  • Nocturnal/Crepuscular
Type
Bird
Common Name
Nightjar
Special Features
Camouflaged coloring
Number Of Species
97
Location
North America, South America, Europe, Africa, Asia
Nesting Location
Ground, no nest
Migratory
1

Nightjar Physical Characteristics

Color
  • Brown
  • Grey
  • Black
  • White
Skin Type
Feathers
Lifespan
12 years
Weight
0.7 to 6.6 ounces
Length
12 inches
Age of Sexual Maturity
One year

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View all of the Nightjar images!



These birds are difficult to spot as they blend in with their environment and only come out at night.

Summary

The nightjars (Caprimulgidae) are a family of nocturnal birds with flat heads, long wings, and large eyes. These birds have a mottled coloring that camouflages them against tree bark, making them difficult to spot. They live all over the globe, except for Antarctica and highly arid deserts. They primarily inhabit open country areas where they spend their days resting in hiding spots and their nights hunting for flying insects. Find out everything there is to know about the nightjars, including where they live, what they eat, and how they behave.

5 Amazing Nightjar Facts

  • Nightjars don’t build a nest. Instead, they lay their eggs directly on the ground.
  • There are 97 nightjar species across 20 genera!
  • Males make a clapping sound with their wings while defending their territories or courting a female.
  • They use their huge mouths to swallow insects whole.
  • Many nightjar species are declining due to human disruption.

Where to Find the Nightjar

Nightjars live on every continent except Antarctica, inhabiting hundreds of countries, such as the United States, Colombia, Italy, Kenya, and the United Kingdom. They live in a wide range of habitats from sea level to the mountains, residing in rainforests to deserts. But they prefer open country areas with some vegetation. These birds are difficult to spot as they blend in with their environment and only come out at night. Listen for their creepy hollow notes as they sit perched or dart out to grab a flying insect.

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Nightjars are one of the few birds that don’t build a nest structure. Instead, they lay their eggs directly on the leaf-covered ground. They use their unique coloring to camouflage them and their young. 

Scientific Name

The nightjar (Caprimulgidae) belongs to the Caprimulgiformes order in the Caprimulgidae family. They are also called nighthawks and bugeaters; the term “nightjar” is typically used in Europe, while the New World species are referred to as “nighthawks.” There are 97 nightjar species across 20 genera, including the spotted nightjar, common nighthawk, Madagascar nightjar. 

Size, Appearance, & Behavior

Nightjars are medium-sized nocturnal birds (some are crepuscular), measuring around 12 inches long and weighing 0.7 to 6.6 ounces, with a 20-inch wingspan. They have long wings, short legs, tiny bills, large eyes, and flat heads. Their coloring is a mottled brown, grey, black, and white, perfectly camouflaged with the tree bark. 

Most nightjar species are nocturnal, resting in dense vegetative hiding places during the day and hunting at night. These birds are relatively solitary, but they form pairs during the breeding season, and some mate for life. Their vocalizations can vary, some sounding like monotonous hollow notes and others producing short trills. Males may also make a clapping sound with their wings when defending their territories or courting a female. They are excellent fliers, catching insects while cruising through the air. They are agile and buoyant fliers, but their exact speed is unknown.

European nightjar in a tree
This European nightjar is mottled brown and grey, allowing it to camouflage perfectly with the tree bark.

©iStock.com/Vassiliy Vishnevskiy

Migration Patterns and Timing

Nightjars are migratory birds that begin traveling at the beginning of autumn. Research reveals that they synchronize their travel with the moon’s phases, meaning their migration patterns are associated with the lunar cycle. Many species breed in northern regions and migrate to warmer climates during winter. For instance, the European nightjar spends its spring and summer in Northern Europe and its winter in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Diet

Nightjars are insectivores who hunt at night.

What Does the Nightjar Eat?

Their diet consists primarily of flying and swarming insects, such as ants, flies, mosquitos, moths, grasshoppers, beetles, midges, and caterpillars. They will occasionally eat spiders, millipedes, centipedes, and small snails. These birds hunt at night from a perch, dashing out to grab insects in mid-air and swallowing them whole with their gaping mouths. 

Predators, Threats, and Conservation Status

Several nightjar species are threatened or near-threatened, such as the red-necked and Puerto Rican nightjars. Their biggest threats include habitat loss, road collisions, and nest predators. These birds nest on the ground, making them vulnerable to intruders, and they roost near roads, making them more susceptible to mortality from motor vehicles.

What Eats the Nightjar?

Nightjars are ground nesting birds and have many nest predators that prey on their eggs and young. They are vulnerable to red foxes, martens, hedgehogs, weasels, domestic dogs, crows, magpies, jays, owls, and snakes. Nightjars are known for their distraction displays, where they feign injuries to lure predators away from their nests. But these birds mainly use camouflage to conceal themselves.

Reproduction, Young, and Molting

Most nightjar species are monogamous. Some may even mate for life, while others stay together for one breeding season. Their reproductive season begins during the spring and lasts until late summer, depending on the region. Females lay one to four white or cream-colored eggs and incubate them for 16 to 30 days. The young fledge the nest around 16 to 21 days and become fully independent in just over one month. Most species become sexually mature around one year and live an average of 12 years. 

Population

The global nightjar population is unknown, but the common nightjar alone accounts for 23 million mature individuals. Many nightjar species have decreasing numbers primarily due to human disruption.

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About the Author

Niccoy is a professional writer and content creator focusing on nature, wildlife, food, and travel. She graduated Kappa Beta Delta from Florida State College with a business degree before realizing writing was her true passion. She lives in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and enjoys hiking, reading, and cooking!

Nightjar FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Are there nightjars in America?

There are six nightjar species in America, including the common nighthawk, common poorwill, buff-collared nightjar, chuck-will’s-widow, Eastern whip-poor-will, and Mexican whip-poor-will.

Is a nightjar the same as a nighthawk?

Nightjars and nighthawks come from the same family but nighthawks have smaller heads, pointier wings, and fly for longer periods.

Where are nightjars found?

Nightjars live all over the globe, except for Antarctica and very arid desert regions. They inhabit a wide range of habitats but are most commonly associated with the open country.

What do nightjars look like?

They have long wings, short legs, tiny bills, large eyes, and flat heads. Their coloring is a mottled brown, grey, black, and white, perfectly camouflaged with the tree bark.

What do nightjars eat?

Their diet consists primarily of flying and swarming insects, such as ants, flies, mosquitos, moths, grasshoppers, beetles, midges, and caterpillars.

Are nightjars endangered?

Several nightjar species are threatened or near-threatened, such as the red-necked and Puerto Rican nightjars.

Do nightjars mate for life?

Most nightjar species are monogamous. Some may even mate for life, while others stay together for one breeding season.

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.

Sources
  1. IUCN Redlist, Available here: https://www.iucnredlist.org/search?query=nightjar&searchType=species
  2. Science Direct, Available here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0006320700001750
  3. Online LIbrary, Available here: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1474-919X.1990.tb00280.x
  4. New Scientist, Available here: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2219944-nightjars-time-their-epic-migration-flights-using-a-lunar-calendar/

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