Nightjars of Wisconsin (3 Species to Know)

Nightjars are very interesting birds that are characterized by their superb camouflage and nocturnal lifestyle. Many of these species are familiar due to the sounds they make at night rather than what they look like, and play an important role in the symphony of nighttime sounds that people hear.

In Wisconsin, there are two species of common nightjars and one rare species that can be found in the state. Knowing what these species look like, sound like, and some of their habits can be instrumental in knowing which one you have encountered.

Chuck-will’s-widow (Rare)

Chuck-will’s-widow – Photo by Susan Young

Chuck-will’s-widows are camouflaged to look just like a tree branch with a base gray to brown color with darker and lighter patches of color mixed in. They have a short, flat, appearance with large eyes and a small bill. Males have light bands of color on their tail that are visible in flight.


Chuck-will’s-widows are classic southern bird species that spend their summers in the Southeastern United States and can be found year-round in Southern Florida. Chuck-will’s-widows migrate south for the winter, residing in Eastern Mexico, Central America, Cuba, and Northeastern South America.

Diet and Foraging Habits

Chuck-will’s-widows are nocturnal hunters that feed primarily on insects, but have also been known to eat small birds and bats.

Where to Find This Bird

Chuck-will’s-widows can be found in scrubby or forested areas across there normal range. They are best found by listening for their call which sounds like they are saying their own name: “Chuck-will’s-widow.”

In Wisconsin, this species is quite rare, but they have been known to make their way into the state on occasion.

Common Nighthawk

Common Nighthawk – Photo by USFWS Mountain-Prairie

Common Nighthawks are compact looking birds with brown, gray, and tan mottled patterning on their back, head, and wings. They have brown stripes on their lighter colored underside, large eyes, and a small bill. Some characteristic markings of Common Nighthawks are white on the wings and under the chin.


Common Nighthawks winter in South America and migrate north in spring. They are widespread across the United States and Canada but do not usually go as far north as Alaska. This species also summers in Western Mexico and lives year-round in Cuba and the surrounding islands.

Diet and Foraging Habits

Common Nighthawks feed on flying insects which they catch out of the air. They often feed near streetlights and other sources of light during the night that are attractors for insects. This species also feeds during the later parts of the daytime as well as the night.

Where to Find This Bird

Common Nighthawks can be found most easily by watching for them during migration when they can sometimes be seen in large numbers flying over during the late afternoon and early evening. Other ways to see these birds are to look out for them near large lights such as street lights and stadiums where they will be looking to feed on insects that are attracted to the lights. Even if it’s dark out, listen for the sharp “beer” call of these birds to know that they are around.

Eastern Whip-poor-will

Eastern Whip-poor-will – Photo by Susan Young

Eastern Whip-poor-wills are a base brown color with lighter tan, gray, and darker brown mottling, making this species look like a log or tree branch. They have darker barring on a light underside, large eyes, and a small somewhat downturned bill.


Eastern Whip-poor-wills winter in Central America, Eastern Mexico, and the Gulf Coast of the United States. In spring, they move north to their breeding areas in most of the Eastern United States and Southeastern Canada. There are some parts of the Eastern United States that Eastern Whip-poor-wills migrate through but do not spend the summer in.

Diet and Foraging Habits

Eastern Whip-poor-wills feed on insects. They will leave their perches to catch moths, beetles, and other flying insects out of the air and then return to the same perch. Since this species has a surprisingly large mouth, they can eat insects that are fairly sizable.

Where to Find This Bird

Eastern Whip-poor-wills can be found in forests close to more open areas such as fields. The best way to find them is to go out at night and listen for their namesake “whip-poor-will” call.


Nightjars are enigmatic and mysterious birds that aren’t often seen due to their nocturnal nature. Knowing the species that are expected in your state can be instrumental in identifying which one you are looking at or hearing.. Hopefully, this article has helped in answering some questions about the nightjars of Wisconsin.

If you enjoyed this post, please give it a like and a comment. Also be sure to check out the Badgerland Birding Youtube Channel.

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