Photo: Allan J Sander/Great Backyard Bird Count Participant

Common Poorwill

Phalaenoptilus nuttallii

In dry hills of the west, a soft whistled poor-will carries across the slopes on moonlit nights. Drivers may spot the Poorwill itself sitting on a dirt road, its eyes reflecting orange in the headlights, before it flits off into the darkness. This species is famous as the first known hibernating bird: In cool weather it may enter a torpid state, with lowered body temperature, heartbeat, and rate of breathing, for days or even weeks at a time. Science discovered this in the 1940s, but apparently the Hopi people knew it long before that: their name for the Poorwill means "the sleeping one."
Conservation status Still widespread, and numbers probably stable.
Family Nightjars
Habitat Dry hills, open brush. Various kinds of open dry terrain at low elevation in the west, including rocky mesas with scattered shrubs, washes and hills in Sonoran desert, scrubby areas in dry open pine forest. May be found in open grassland, but usually only around rocky outcrops.
In dry hills of the west, a soft whistled poor-will carries across the slopes on moonlit nights. Drivers may spot the Poorwill itself sitting on a dirt road, its eyes reflecting orange in the headlights, before it flits off into the darkness. This species is famous as the first known hibernating bird: In cool weather it may enter a torpid state, with lowered body temperature, heartbeat, and rate of breathing, for days or even weeks at a time. Science discovered this in the 1940s, but apparently the Hopi people knew it long before that: their name for the Poorwill means "the sleeping one."
Photo Gallery
  • adult male dark morph
  • adult male light morph
  • adult (defensive display)
Feeding Behavior

Forages mostly by sitting on the ground or on a low perch and making short flights upward to catch passing insects. Occasionally forages in longer, sustained flights. Does most foraging at dawn and dusk or on moonlit nights. Sometimes picks up insects (and possibly spiders) from ground.


Eggs

2. White, sometimes with a few spots. Incubation is by both parents, 20-21 days. Young: Both parents feed young, by regurgitating insects. If nest site is disturbed, parents can move either the eggs or young to a new location. Downy young can move on their own by hopping or somersaulting across the ground. Age of young at first flight 20-23 days. May raise 2 broods per year.


Young

Both parents feed young, by regurgitating insects. If nest site is disturbed, parents can move either the eggs or young to a new location. Downy young can move on their own by hopping or somersaulting across the ground. Age of young at first flight 20-23 days. May raise 2 broods per year.

Diet

Insects. Feeds mainly on night-flying insects, especially moths and beetles, also some grasshoppers, flies, and others. Insects up to one and a half inches long can be swallowed whole.


Nesting

Male calls at night in spring to defend territory and to attract a mate. Nest site is on ground, on bare open soil, rock, or gravel, sometimes on dead leaves or pine needles. Often shaded by a shrub or overhanging rock, and sometimes in secluded rock shelter. No nest built, although bird may make a slight scrape in soil. Same site may be used more than one year.

Text © Kenn Kaufman, adapted from
Lives of North American Birds

Illustration © David Allen Sibley.
Learn more about these drawings.

Migration

Departs from northern part of breeding range in fall; migratory route and winter range of these birds not well known. In southwest, may be present all year, remaining torpid in cooler weather.

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Migration

Departs from northern part of breeding range in fall; migratory route and winter range of these birds not well known. In southwest, may be present all year, remaining torpid in cooler weather.

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon
Songs and Calls
A mellow poor-will.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
Learn more about this sound collection.