Living Bird Magazine
Common PoorwillPhalaenoptilus nuttallii
- ORDER: Caprimulgiformes
- FAMILY: Caprimulgidae
On desert nights in western North America, Common Poorwills chant their name into the darkness for hours on end. During the day, these gray-brown nightjars stay camouflaged against the ground and are extremely hard to see. The warm days and often very cold nights pose challenges for nocturnal insect-eaters such as poorwills, as insects are less active in the cold. As an adaptation, poorwills can go into a state of torpor when conditions are harsh and food is scarce, saving energy until conditions improve.More ID Info
Find This Bird
Listen for male Common Poorwills singing their repeated poor-willip on warm nights in spring and summer. Following the song to the bird at night can be tricky, especially since its habitat features thorny plants and venomous reptiles. Try to find a bird calling near a quiet backroad, where a flashlight or headlights can illuminate the bird (keep your viewing brief to avoid disturbing it). A whistled imitation of the song sometimes brings a male in to investigate.
- Chotacabras Pachacua (Spanish)
- Engoulevent de Nuttall (French)
- Cool Facts
- The Hopi name for poorwill is hölchoko, “the sleeping one,” which indicates an awareness of the species’ use of torpor. Scientists studying this species in winter have been astonished to learn that they lower their body temperature to 41° Fahrenheit and reduce their oxygen consumption by more than 90%.
- In addition to coping with cold, Common Poorwills must also find relief during extreme heat, which they do through panting (opening the mouth and often fluttering the throat muscles) and through releasing water through the skin.
- Common Poorwills have a “pectinated claw”—a toenail with comblike serrations—that they use for scratching and for straightening out their feathers, including their rictal bristles, which are stiff, hairlike feathers around the mouth that help them sense prey and probably funnel it into the mouth.