There’s still a lot of winter left, so it’s a perfect time to get to know a bird that doesn’t ever have to experience winter, at least as we know it. Last week we spent some time with the active, sociable and very visible bananaquit. When I was in Cozumel, Mexico, recently I encountered a very different kind of creature — a mysterious, nocturnal, rarely-seen one. This nightjar with the haunting cry is known in Spanish as “chotacabras pauraque”, or in English, by the more quotidian name “common pauraque”.
Their Spanish name reflects another name for this family of birds, goatsuckers, which derives from a very old folk belief that they used their weird, large mouth to suck the milk from goats (this is also where the term “chupacabra” is derived from). Like other nightjars, pauraques have a musical, mournful cry that makes the superstitions and myths that surround them pretty understandable.
The first time I heard one years ago, it was back in a patch of young mangroves on a moonlit night. It took a lot of scrolling through videos and recordings of nocturnal birds before I was able to narrow down and identify what I was hearing (thanks largely to more recent and regionally appropriate recordings on the Cornell All About Birds site). They make a loud “Perwee-o” sound along with some grunting or froggy noises.
Audio is about the best way to identify these extremely well-camouflaged birds. Like their relatives, pauraques are perfectly mottled to blend in with leaf litter and anything else on the forest or desert floor. They’re bigger than our local nightjars, whippoorwills and nighthawks, with a very cute long tail with white feathers. They have wing bands like nighthawks but aren’t seen flying around prominently the way nighthawks are. They’ve got the typical neckless, small-headed nightjar build and eyes that reflect light like a cat.
Pauraques are one of a group of tropical birds that are seen in the U.S. but only in the far southern bootheel of Texas. This must be a wonderful area for birding: other species found only there include the great kiskadee, the clay-colored thrush and the beautiful green jay. Outside of the U.S. they’re in low country throughout Mexico and Central America, and much of South America, where they’re the odd species to benefit from deforestation because they love recently cleared and open habitats.
While they closely resemble their relatives in appearance, common pauraques have some behaviors that set them apart. They have those tiny, almost invisible nightjar legs, but this doesn’t stop them from running and chasing insect prey, or from jumping straight up to catch passing insects. Males also occasionally jump up from the ground while singing, which must be a total hoot to see. They sing and hunt from very low perches like rocks and stumps, although the ones I heard recently sounded like they were singing from higher up on a building. No word from naturalists on why my birds spent almost all their time in the “Royal Club” at our resort, where they were probably wishing they hadn’t been talked into that timeshare presentation. Singing is most often heard at dusk or dawn, and on moonlit nights much like our whippoorwills.
Male common pauraques are much better mate material than other New World nightjars. Pauraque dads share incubation duties with the moms, and both parents care for the chicks by thoughtfully regurgitating the wide variety of insects that make up their diet. Ornithologists think pauraques are monogamous, but no one is 100% sure. Males and females of this species hang out together even outside of breeding periods. Central Americans refer to pauraques as “Don Pucuyo”, and legend has it that their song signifies the presence of a ghostly ladies’ man.
Common pauraques are widespread as their name suggests. Their preference for open habitat means that they do well with human impacts like logging and agriculture, and as seen by their residence in the Royal Club, they aren’t deterred by development. They’re impacted by declining insect populations and are vulnerable to car strikes because they love to hunt bugs along roadways. I’ll miss their echoing call now that I’m back in the Northland.
Sarah Morris is a bird-watcher and outdoorswoman who explores northern Wisconsin from her home base in the town of Gingles. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.