In the column “Since You Asked” in every issue of BirdWatching, Contributing Editor Julie Craves answers readers’ questions about birds and bird behavior. Here is a question from our December 2014 issue:
An old-timer asked me to identify “the big noisy bird that eats hummingbirds.” I eventually determined that he was describing a Chuck-will’s-widow but can’t believe that the mostly nocturnal bird would ever eat a hummingbird. — Taylor Cooper, Tyler, Texas
Chuck-will’s-widows, like their relatives Common Nighthawk and Eastern Whip-poor-will, forage at dawn and dusk mainly on insects, especially large moths. It’s not hard to imagine someone mistaking a big sphinx moth for a hummingbird while it is being pursued by a Chuck-will’s-widow, especially in poor lighting. But Chuck-will’s-widows are also sometimes active on cloudy afternoons, and they will indeed eat small birds if the opportunity arises. Bird species reported as dinner items include warblers, Carolina Wren, Swamp Sparrow, and, yes, hummingbirds. A hummingbird must seem like a dainty morsel (albeit with skewer included) to a Chuck-will’s-widow that has choked down a feisty wren.
Chuck-will’s-widows are also known to eat small frogs, especially when the birds are molting. When they are replacing their flight feathers, they may not be as skillful in the air, and pursuit of fast insects may be less successful. Amphibians could be an important alternative food source, and perhaps frogs provide extra nutrition during the energetically demanding period.
About Julie Craves
Julie is supervisor of avian research at the Rouge River Bird Observatory at the University of Michigan Dearborn and a research associate at the university’s Environmental Interpretive Center. She writes about her research on the blog Net Results, and she maintains the website Coffee & Conservation, a thorough resource on where coffee comes from and its impact on wild birds.