These nocturnal birds have ear-like feathery tufts on their heads, excellent night vision and a call which is said to be jarring.
Lock up your goats, it’s the great eared nightjar; a big-mouthed, teat-wrangling, milk-gobbler of a bird that will desiccate your bleaters and leave them blind. At least, that’s what Aristotle thought. According to the renowned Greek philosopher, nightjars suckle directly from the udders of goats. Bear in mind, however, he also believed that eels spontaneously generate from mud, that Earth is at the centre of the Universe and that men have hotter blood than women. Pinch of salt, anyone?
Myths can be hard to shake and so, today, the nightjar is still known to some as the ‘goatsucker.’ Nightjars, of which there are around 100 species, feed on the wing and are insectivorous. In days gone by, they might have been attracted to domestic livestock, to feed on the insects that associate with them, which is where the nickname may have come from.
The name ‘nightjar’ refers to the fact that the birds are nocturnal, and that their calls are said to be jarring. The great eared nightjar, known from the Western Ghats of India and parts of Southeast Asia, is so-called because it has great ‘ears.’ The feathery tufts that protrude from its head, are a bit like the ear tufts of a lynx. Indeed, the bird’s Latin name is Lyncornis macrotis, which means long-eared lynx bird.
The Latin name was bequeathed by the Irish zoologist Nicholas Aylward Vigors, who spotted the bird in 1831. This was no mean feat. Like all nightjars, the great eared variety is an expert in cryptic camouflage.
During the day, it hides in plain sight among the woody undertones of the forest, where its disruptive colouration – a subtle palette of greys, browns and ochres – helps to break up the bird’s outline so it blends seamlessly into the background. Is it a pile of leaves? Is it a tree stump? Is it even there at all? Evolution has sculpted this bird into a true master of disguise.
The great eared nightjar has relatively long wings, short legs, a small beak, but a big gape. Night vision is enhanced by a layer of reflective cells that sit just behind the retina. The tapetum lucidum, which is a common feature of other nocturnal hunters such as sharks, crocodiles and cats, helps the bird to see in the dark. When caught in the glare of a torch, it also makes the nightjar’s eyes shine, which can be a useful feature for the conservationists who study it.
Adult females lay a single egg in a scrape in the ground, which both parents then brood. When the egg hatches, they continue to feed the chick until it can fend for itself.
The birds call at night, but in reality, their song is far from jarring. A sharp ‘tsiik’ followed by a two syllable ‘ba-haaww’ is an enchanting and a much-preferred alternative to the call of the bird’s Indonesian relative. The Satanic nightjar of Sulawesi is so-called because its call sounds as if it is plucking a person’s eyes out! Ouch!