Goat suckers! – The mysterious nightjars
Sneaking into farms at night and stealing the milk from goats? What? Only a century or so ago that is exactly what European farmers thought nightjars got up to, what with their strange shaped mouths and habit of flying around grazing goats at sunset. Them suckling the milk from the sleeping animals would be the only logical conclusion one could make. So nightjars were bestowed with the latin name Caprimulgus which literally means “goat sucker” and still applies to many species today.
The truth of the matter is these secretive and mysterious birds do not feed on goat’s milk but hang about livestock to snap up any insects they might disturb. You see, nightjars are active at night. During the day they hunker down in some leaf litter on the ground and are so well camouflaged you can easily step over one. Nightjars got their more common name by the variety of odd calls they make, literally a jarring experience if you are suddenly awoken by one at night. The calls do vary from species to species. The white throated nightjars (Eurostopodus mystacalis) make a slow whooping sound that accelerates into a maniacal gobbling sound, the large tailed nightjars (Caprimulgus macrourus) have a monotonous chopping call while the savannah nightjars (Caprimulgus affinis) make a loud screeching call in flight at sunset. Either way, you are sure to know that they are about during breeding season.When nightjars do get around to it, eggs are laid on the ground in a small scrape. The parent sits there to incubate and protect them from predators and hot or wet weather. When the chick hatches it is capable of walking about and hiding from predators by itself, but it is still fed by the parent. If escape is not possible, the chick will actually attack with an open mouth and bite!
The best way to see nightjars for yourself is to drive slowly along quiet back roads at night. Their eyes glow orange up ahead. Sometimes you can get within a couple of meters if you are lucky.