“So what birds have you seen lately,” people say to me when they’ve run out of other things to say and don’t mind listening to me ramble on like the slightly dotty enthusiast I am. And finally, at long last, I’ve found the answer that gets me even weirder looks than “American Woodcock.”

For last week, I saw my life Chuck-will’s-widow.

Let’s face it, the entire Caprimulgidae family is a fiesta of nomenclatural goofiness, which is only appropriate given that these are species that look odd, act odd, and sound odd. As John James Audubon wrote, “No sooner has the sun disappeared, and the nocturnal insects emerged from their burrows, than the sounds, “chuck-will’s-widow,” repeated with great clearness and power six or seven times in as many seconds, strike the ear, bringing to the mind a pleasure mingled with a certain degree of melancholy, which I have often found very soothing.” It’s the call that gives the Chuck-will’s-widow its book name, much like its cousin the Whippoorwill and for that matter the Killdeer… and I just realized that trying to put words to bird calls somehow turns people into sadists. Or only sadists would try to put words to bird calls. One of those. Other English names for the species include the equally dramatic but less common Chip-fell-out-of-a-oak, which both roughly mimics the sound of the bird and explains what it’s doing nesting on the ground there.

Audubon painting of two Chuck-will's-widows with a coral snake.

Audubon painting of two Chuck-will’s-widows with a coral snake.

The Latin nomenclature for this species is no less bizarre. The genus name Antrostomus translates roughly to “with a cave-like mouth”, a totally apt description, as many insects and even small birds have learned to their dismay. The family name means goat-milker, and indeed all nightjars are sometimes colloquially called goatsuckers, as I’ve learned not to bring up unless I want to keep the weird looks going. European folklore holds that these birds would creep up on goats at night and suck out the milk. (Milk snakes get their name from a similar legend. Dairy farmers are a cowardly and superstitious lot.*)

So that’s the story on why it’s called the Chuck-will’s-widow, and everyone can stop giving me that look, and my boyfriend can sleep soundly at night. If it would make people feel better you can think of him as Charlie instead. There is no such thing as a Charlie-will’s-widow.

*just kidding. Some of my best relatives are dairy farmers.

Featured image: “Chuck-will’s-widow RWD2” by DickDaniels (http://carolinabirds.org/) – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Written by Carrie
Carrie Laben, after years of writing and birding in New York, moved to Montana to pursue her two great passions more effectively. She recently graduated with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Montana in Missoula. When she is not cranking out essays and speculative fiction stories, or wandering around on mountains failing to see the birds she is looking for, she is likely to be drinking one of the many fine local microbrews or attending a potluck with something from the local farmer’s market in hand. On Mondays from 3 to 3:30 Mountain Time you can find her answering questions about birds on live chat at DaysAtDunrovin.com.