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Common Poorwill Life History



Common Poorwills inhabit mostly shrubby, open areas in arid environments. They avoid grasslands with heavy ground cover as well as forests. In the eastern parts of their range, look for them in open habitats with small copses of spruce and aspen. In the western U.S. and Mexico, poorwills occupy rocky habitats with scattered bushes, foothills, plateaus, washes, sagebrush flats, pinyon-juniper woodlands, chaparral, and some desert environments, usually at elevations above 1,000 feet but below 7,000 feet. They typically roost on the ground or among rocks, where their cryptic plumage makes them very difficult to see.

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Like other nightjars, poorwills eat mostly flying insects during the night, and especially at dusk and just before dawn. They perch very low in vegetation, on rocks, or on the ground, watching for insects, then sally up to catch them in flight. Their diet consists largely of moths and beetles, and they cough up pellets of undigestible material from these insects after digesting the edible parts. Grasshoppers, flying ants, and flies also form part of the diet. Their large mouths enable them to swallow insects up to 1.6 inches long.

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Nest Placement


Common Poorwills lay their eggs directly on the stony or sandy ground, sometimes on pine needles or other leaf litter, often near a shrub, cactus, or rocky outcrop.

Nest Description

This species does not make a nest, just a slight scrape in the ground.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:2 eggs
Number of Broods:2 broods
Egg Length:0.9-1.1 in (2.2-2.9 cm)
Egg Width:0.7-0.8 in (1.7-2.1 cm)
Incubation Period:20-21 days
Nestling Period:20-23 days
Egg Description:White or pinkish.
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Aerial Forager

Common Poorwills use south-facing hills to warm themselves and often place nests there as well. During the heat of the day, they often roost beneath bushes, and one individual may have several favorite roost locations. Family groups sometimes roost together. Like many other birds, poorwills bathe in dust (which helps get rid of external parasites). During the day they may preen their feathers, often beginning with a comical swaying motion. Birds that are threatened open the large mouth, spread the wings, fluff up the body feathers, and hiss at the intruder.

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Low Concern

Common Poorwill populations declined by an estimated 29% between 1970 and 2017, according to Partners in Flight. The estimated global breeding population is 1.4 million, and the species rates an 11 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating it is of low conservation concern. Urbanization has led to significant losses of habitat for this species, and vehicle strikes may also reduce populations.

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Partners in Flight (2017). Avian Conservation Assessment Database. 2017.

Sauer, J. R., J. E. Hines, J. E. Fallon, K. L. Pardieck, Jr. Ziolkowski, D. J. and W. A. Link. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, results and analysis 1966-2013 (Version 1.30.15). USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center (2014b). Available from

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

Woods, Christopher P., Ryan D. Csada and R. Mark Brigham. (2005). Common Poorwill (Phalaenoptilus nuttallii), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

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