FEW birds have been given as many country names as the European nightjar (Caprimulgus europaeus) and probably only owls are surrounded with more superstition.
The bird’s generic name Caprimulgus means “goatsucker”, and that was once its common English name. Since ancient times, people have believed that nightjars drink milk from the udders of sleeping goats and cows, infecting them with disease. In Devon, the bird was known as the night swallow, whereas Lancastrians, referring to its wide gape, called it the flying toad.
The nightjar is a bird of the twilight, active mainly at sunset and sunrise, and only flying occasionally during the day. It spends the daylight hours on the ground, preferably in glades or on the edge of woodlands. Its ideal location is among bracken or camouflaged among the “furze” (gorse), hence the names furze owl and fern hawk.
When perched in a tree, a nightjar often positions itself lengthways on a stout branch, eyes half-closed, its small feet hidden and its plumage merging with the tree lichen and bark. This ability to camouflage themselves is similar to that of the nightjar’s relations, the frogmouths. It’s also no coincidence that nightjars have long wings, short beaks and wide gapes, like swifts, for they’re also related.
Worldwide, there are almost 100 species of nightjars, with names ranging from nighthawk (another old UK country name) to American species named after their calls, such as the poorwills, whip-poor-wills and curiously named chuck-will’s-widow. Sexes are often similar. They all have soft-feathered, cryptically patterned plumage and a similar body shape, and a few have long tail feathers. The male breeding plumage of the South African pennant-winged nightjar (Caprimulgus vexillarius) consists of a foot-long pennant on each wing. In the European species, the male has three white spots on its outer primaries and outer tail feathers.
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