Georgia conservationists try to disown Chuck-Will’s widow

Georgians may not have heard of the Chuck Will’s widow, but they’ve probably heard them calling each other from the treetops on a gloomy, warm spring evening.

The elusive and nocturnal Chuck Will’s widow is Georgia Audubon’s “species of concern” for 2023-2025, said an ambassador for the organization’s conservation programs. Highlighting the work that can help bird species facing population decline in Georgia, Species of Concern also offers Georgians an opportunity to learn more about a native species.

This year’s election is another challenge: scientists, conservationists, and researchers know next to nothing about the Chuck Will’s widow, but they do know that their populations are declining.

A Chuck Will widow opens her mouth wide as researchers attach a ribbon to her leg for identification.

What are chucks?

Chuck-will’s-witow is a species of nightjar, a nocturnal bird family recognizable by its brown camouflage, small beaks, long wings, and blunt necks and legs. But most of all, they are known for their huge, cavernous mouths.

“I sometimes describe them almost as if Jim Henson was asked to design a little Muppet kite,” said University of Georgia ornithologist Clark Rushing.

Chucks have a Jabba the Hutt look to them, and Rushing said they’re shaped like a kid-sized soccer ball. They flit around treetops at night, chasing insects for food, classifying them as aerial insectivores.

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“The irony is that they’re so charismatic, but you rarely actually meet them,” Rushing said.

One reason researchers know so little about this bird is that they are simply difficult to observe. Unlike other nocturnal birds native to Georgia, such as B. Barred Owl, the Chuck Will’s widow migrates south for most of the year. While many owl species vocalize or are somewhat active during the day, Chuck Will’s widows are only active at dusk and during the night. They are almost impossible to find unless they make their calls.

“If you squint a bit,” Rushing said, they sound like they’re saying her name. Their call is most commonly heard at dusk, particularly during a full moon, but they are easily mistaken for a close relative, the more familiar whip-arm.

In Georgia, the Chuck Will’s widow is a local summer resident who will be arriving on the coast in the next few weeks. All spring they will sweep the Piedmont, and after brooding and reproducing all summer they will fly south for the winter.

A researcher holds a Chuck Will's widow with a flashlight during a late-night survey.

Despite knowing very little, scientists do know that chucks are declining

Rushing is an assistant professor at the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources at UGA, where he and his graduate students focus on the study of non-wild (hunting) birds. With the help of Georgia Audubon, he and his team are returning to the Georgia coast this spring to answer big, fundamental questions about Chucks, such as: B. where they go in winter, what conditions they prefer for nesting, and how many offspring they have.

Although researchers don’t know much about chucks, they do know that there are fewer of them.

There are three ways researchers know this, Rushing said. First, the Breeding Bird Survey – a continental-scale surveillance program conducted since the late 1960s – has indicated a relative decline. In this survey, volunteers drive a set route early in the morning, stopping every half mile to count all the birds they see or hear. It’s not the best equipment for spotting nightjars, Rushing said, but the survey has been conducted over time using the same methods and can give a decent picture of the relative decline.

Surveys tailored specifically for nightjars also indicate a declining population.

Finally, Rushing said that people who used to listen to Chuck Will’s Widows don’t listen to them nearly as often anymore. Rushing’s predecessor, Bob Cooper, had nights in Clarke County where he counted 40 or 50 nightjars, but these days Rushing said you’re lucky to hear one or two on the same route.

A Chuck Will's widow.  Ornithologist Clark Rushing said they were roughly the size and shape of a child-sized football.

Efforts are being made to reduce the loss

“Habitat loss is the number one threat to all of our birds, and that undoubtedly affects Chuck Wills widows, as does insect mortality,” said Adam Butuel, director of conservation at Georgia Audubon. Selecting Chucks as a species of concern is one way the organization can educate people about a cool bird native to Georgia, raise awareness of research into it, and encourage conservation and participation.

The organization has several programs aimed at strengthening native plants that support insect populations as well as habitat conservation, such as the Habitat Stewardship Program, which can help birds in general, including Chuck Will’s widows. This program is designed to help property managers improve their land to benefit native wildlife while connecting them to educational resources, technical assistance programs, cost-sharing and revenue-generating programs, and engagement and research opportunities.

Butuel said Georgia Audubon also hopes to enlist support for the Nightjar Survey Network, a College of William & Mary national program that allows volunteers to choose routes and monitor birds like Chuck Will’s widows in their area. Another easy way Georgians can contribute data is by using the eBird program to submit sightings of Chuck Will’s widows.

A researcher shows the small tracker placed on a Chuck Will's widow.  When the bird returns, researchers can collect data on where it went over the winter.

On the ground waiting to return

This spring, graduate student Natalie Ramos is preparing to return to Little St. Simons for a second spring and summer season to find and tag Chuck Will’s widows.

GPS tagging Chucks is relatively new. It wasn’t until recently that tags light enough not to impede the flight of Chuck Wills widows became accessible to researchers, and even then, Ramos said they were limited to VHF (very high frequency) tags. These do not transmit real-time location data, but instead perform a form of tracking where location data can be recorded on the tag and picked up by the researcher’s equipment when in close proximity to the bird.

If the bird doesn’t come back, its whereabouts during the migration will remain a mystery.

“We only marked six (last year) but we really hope at least one or two will come back,” said Ramos. They made bets on where they think the Chucks went. Some say Costa Rica, others Cuba. She’s downstairs for this new, basic information about Chuck’s whereabouts that scientists have never known before.

Even if last summer’s tagged Chucks aren’t returning, there’s other work Ramos looks forward to in the coming nights on the Georgia coast. She, Rushing and their fellow researchers will measure, band and tag Chuck Will’s widows, locate nests and hopefully learn more about how Chucks raise their young. They’ll also set up traps to study the insects in the area to better understand the food intake of Chuck Will’s widows.

“They are the best part of the night,” Ramos said.

Marisa Mecke is an environmental journalist. She can be reached at 912-328-4411 or at