A Book Review of Nigel Cleere’s Nightjars of the World, Princeton University Press


            Nightjars are among the strangest birds in the world. Though cryptically colored and nocturnal, they are not an owl and their habits are vastly different. Indeed, seeing my first nighthawk is one of my most memorable birding experiences. I was thirteen and participating in a twilight hike at a nature center near Colorado Springs. I saw the boomerang-shaped wings of a shadow and the leader promptly identified it as a Common Nighthawk. At the end of the hike, each participant was asked what they enjoyed most about the hike. Many named the fawns or Great-horned Owl. But the fast-flying nighthawk with an insect-like chirp remained in the forefront of my mind.

            Related to nighthawks are potoos, frogmouths, owlet-nightjars, and the oilbird, all members of the order Caprimulgiformes. In his book Nightjars of the World, Nigel Cleere brings to nightjar enthusiasts a wealth of information concerning these ghouls of the night. The book features over 580 photographs and species accounts for all 135 known species of nightjars, including species which have not been seen since their original discovery. Looking through the color rich photographs and ample text, the reader also realizes how much has yet to be learned about these bizarre birds. For many of the species, downy chicks have never been described and breeding dates are estimations yet to be detailed out. No doubt their nocturnal habits and cryptic plumage make them among the most difficult species to research.

            The book begins with information on distribution, plumage, taxonomy, and general biology of the Caprimulgiformes. Here Cleere offers a variety of information for all levels of interests. In these pages, Cleere explains the function of a nightjar’s cryptic, variegated, or spotted plumage, the distribution of the various families across the seven continents, breeding biology, and much more, sprinkled with interesting facts. For example, the Oilbird is one of the few birds known to hunt by echolocation. Their chicks gain so much fat in the nest that local people would collect the chicks and boil them to extract the fat to use as oil (hence the name oilbird). The book also includes a section on the breeding habits of Caprimulgiformes, including photos of the eggs, nests, and chicks of a few species. Here Cleere states that nest sites and/ or eggs of 29 species remains completely unknown.

            I highly recommend this book for birders at any level who find themselves lured to the obscure members of the order Caprimulgiformes. Even those of casual interest will find fascinating the large, full-color photographs of wide-eyed nightjars and frogmouths or potoos blending in perfectly with a vertical branch.