Nightjars in trouble

With big eyes, amazing camouflage and a spooky call, it's easy to be a little nervous if you come across a nightjar in the dark. These shy birds have been declining for some time but the RSPB has been working hard to help. Here's how.

Churiffic little birds

Nightjars must be one of the oddest birds in the UK. They’re like a cross between a cuckoo and a swift, with huge eyes, tiny legs and long, tapered wings. Like both swifts and cuckoos, they’re migrants, traveling here from Africa each spring, before leaving again just a few weeks later, allowing them to take advantage of the big, juicy moths that are flying in the UK at that time.   

They’re expertly camouflaged, secretive and mostly nocturnal, so very few people will ever be lucky enough to see one. If you hear one, you may not even think you’re hearing a bird, as their call – called a ‘chur’ – could easily be confused for a frog or perhaps even an electronic toy that’s been left out running overnight. 

Listen to nightjars

Nightjar Caprimulgus europaeus, close up at the Lodge RSPB reserve, Sandy
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Declining population

Sadly, until recently, the UK nightjar population had been falling, but the good news is they’re finally starting to recover. Nightjars have quite complex needs, and do best in undisturbed areas of heathland, forestry clearings, and coppiced woodland with mixed habitats nearby. They’ve benefited from recent heathland restoration at sites around the country, including several RSPB reserves, but they’ve also started using clear-felled areas on commercial forestry plantations. Lots of these went in after World War II, and over the last couple of decades, many have become mature enough to fell. Managed correctly, clear-felled areas can make excellent habitats for nightjars, and some organisations, such as the Forestry Commission, are now actively working to encourage nightjars to breed.

The RSPB has also been looking out for nightjars at reserves, such as Arne, Farnham Heath, Tudeley Woods and Hazeley Heath. We’ve been working with other organisations too, helping make sure that suitable areas of forestry plantations and heath are as nightjar-friendly as possible.

Nightjar male illustration

Myths and reality

Like many nocturnal animals, nightjars are surrounded by myths, and their strange calls were once associated with witches! People also used to think that they drank milk from goats, though they actually eat moths and other insects, which they catch with the aid of sensitive bristles around their mouths.

But even their real lives are a bit mysterious. Their migration routes weren’t known until quite recently, and it was only through the help of GPS tracking that scientists found out they spend the winter in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Mythical links to the moon may also have a bit of truth behind them, as studies have shown that nightjars are more likely to migrate during a waning moon, and often prefer to lay their eggs under the light of a full moon.

Nightjar in flight

Spooky noises

It’s easy to see why people used to be afraid of nightjars. But when you get to know more about them, it really does bring home how our imaginations sometimes get the better of us. The spooky noises they make are just the calls of a rather awkward, unassuming and shy little bird trying to attract a mate. They may be a bit odd, but it’s only the darkness that makes them scary.

What’s the spookiest noise you’ve heard in your garden at night? 

Get to know nature's dark side

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European hedgehog Erinaceus europaeu, in autumnal leaves, Bedfordshire, England
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