As we settle into summer, if you listen closely during dusk and early nighttime hours, you may
hear the distinctive sounds of goatsuckers.
Also called nightjars, goatsuckers are in a group of birds belonging to the family Caprimulgidae .
These birds are nocturnal insect catchers with small bills, very wide mouths and large, flat
heads. They were first called goatsuckers because of the ancient superstition that they used
their wide mouths to suck milk from goats. While it is unclear if anyone ever really believed in
goat-milking birds, the name stuck.
Arkansas has three species from this family: Eastern Whip-poor-will, Chuck-will's-widow and
Eastern Whip-poor-wills and Chuck-will’s-widows were named for their songs or calls. The
Whip-poor-will’s call has three “syllables” that are sung rapidly. The Chuck-will's-widow's call
has four syllables sung with a slight pause between each one. In northeast Arkansas, you can
hear both species calling at night because their ranges overlap in the northern half of the state.
Residents of south Arkansas may only hear Chuck-will’s-widows. Both species are more
common in rural areas and prefer open woods and wooded areas along fields.
The common nighthawk differs in appearance from the other two species. It has a more tapered
body and rounder head than its cousins. A slightly forked tail; long, pointed wings with white
blazes underneath; and a white, V-shaped throat patch are visible when the bird is in flight.
Nighthawks can be seen over neighborhoods and downtown areas, flying in big looping patterns
catching insects in the evening sky. They often use flat-topped roofs of buildings in many
downtown areas as roosting and nesting sites. Their call is distinctive; it’s best described as a
nasally “peent.” Because they resemble large bats darting after insects, folks from my
grandparents’ generation sometimes called them “Bullbats.”
The common nighthawk has a courtship display known as booming. The male dives steeply,
creating a distinctive “whooshing” sound at the bottom of the dive as air passes through his wing
feathers. The sound resembles cars at a NASCAR race or the quick passing of a large truck. If
you are outside in the evening and hear a common nighthawk’s call, keep listening for (and you
will soon hear!) the unique sound of booming.
Whether you call them goatsuckers or nightjars, this is an interesting group of birds. Their songs
add to those of crickets, cicadas, frogs, toads and other critters that make up the nighttime
symphony of a Mid-South summer. With all that’s going on in today’s world, take some time to
relax outdoors in the evening and enjoy these sounds. Goatsuckers especially do not