Bird of the month

June's bird of the month: Australian Owlet-nightjar

Saturday, 1 June 2024

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5 things about Australian Owlet-nightjars

Your June bird of the month is the Australian Owlet-nightjar! Here are 5 things you may or may not know about our smallest nocturnal bird.

In the middle of the frame, an Australian Owlet-nightjar stares into the camera with big beady eyes from the entrance of a metal pipe against a grey background.
During the day, Australian Owlet-nightjars will often roost in cavities, including pipes. Photo by JJ Harrison via Wikicommons

1. They’re not an owl…or a nightjar

Like many Australian birds, their name is misleading. While they might look like a cross between the two, Australian Owlet-nightjars are neither an owl, nor a nightjar.

Instead, they’re a distinct species, belonging to a small family of nocturnal birds found only in Australasia called the owlet-nightjars. Sometimes called moth or fairy owls, they’re usually considered more closely related to nightjars – although this relationship is obscure and disputed. The Australian Owlet-Nightjar is the only species of owlet-nightjar found in Australia.

Their plumage is highly variable, ranging from darker and more grey in humid areas to a paler, rufous shade in arid areas – but all adult birds have a distinctive head pattern of three dark stripes over their crown. Chicks are covered in wispy white down.

To the right of the frame, a grey and brown Australian Owlet-nightjar is perched on a thin branch against a pale brown background, facing the camera.
Australian Owlet-nightjars are easily flushed from their daytime roosts. Photo by David Pace

2. But they’re still nocturnal!

Australian Owlet-nightjars are one of Australia’s most widespread nocturnal birds. Measuring just 19–25 cm in length, they’re also the smallest, making them difficult to see at night. You’re more likely to hear them calling, or spot one peering down at you with huge dark eyes from the entrance of its daytime roost. Their call is a short shrill chirr that descends in pitch and is repeated 1 to 3 times, especially at dusk.

Australian Owlet-nightjar from xeno-canto by Peter Boesman.

3. They hide out in hollows

Australian Owlet-nightjars are found across the country in almost any timbered habitat, including heathland, rainforest and mallee. However, they mostly inhabit dry open forest or woodland, where they roost and nest in tree hollows. Australian Owlet-nightjars are also known to roost in rock crevices, nest-boxes and other artificial structures, including pipes, roof cavities and chimneys. On a cold day, they’ll often sun themselves at the entrance to their hollows.

Four Australian Owlet-nightjars peering out of the entrance of their hollow at the camera.
An Australian Owlet-nightjar family. Photo by rawshorty

4. They can (almost) hibernate

Some bird species can enter a hibernation-like state called torpor, where they reduce their metabolic rate and body temperature to conserve energy and heat. In cold climates, especially on cold winter mornings, roosting Australian Owlet-nightjars can enter a state of torpor for short periods before becoming active again at night. Big winter mood!

In the centre of the frame, a hunched up Australian Owlet-nightjar suns itself at the entrance of its hollow. Its grey brown plumage is well-camouflaged to the bark.
A well-camouflaged Australian Owlet-nightjar catches some sun at the entrance to its hollow. Photo by Duncan McCaskill via Wikicommons

5. Their whiskers help them hunt

The short, flat bill of the Australian Owlet-nightjar is surrounded by long, hair-like whiskers called rictal bristles. Remarkably, these bristles help them detect and trap their prey while hunting at night.

Australian Owlet-nightjars are insectivorous, and hunt a variety of small insects, spiders and occasionally millipedes. They’re most active in the evenings and before dawn, and will take food from the ground and from the air.