Caprimulgus europaeusEurasian nightjar(Also: European nightjar)

Geographic Range

European nightjars spend summers in the Palearctic. Populations exist from Ireland in the west through Mongolia and eastern Russia in the east. Summer ranges extend from Scandinavia and Siberia in the north through northern Africa and the Persian Gulf in the south. European nightjars migrate in order to breed in the northern hemisphere. They winter in Africa, primarily in the southern and eastern reaches of the continent. Iberian and Mediterranean breeding birds winter in West Africa and vagrants have been recorded in the Seychelles. (Brooks, et al., 1985; Cleere, 1998)


European nightjars are associated with a great variety of habitat types and elevations including moors, orchards, near deserts, wetlands, boreal forests, Mediterranean scrub and young birch, poplar, or conifer stands. They do not favor dense forest or high mountains, but prefer glades, meadows and other open or lightly forested zones that are free from daytime disturbances. ("2006 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species", 2006; Brooks, et al., 1985)

African habitats occupied by Caprimulgus europaeus during the winter are also widely variable. Notably, European nightjars may populate regions as high as 5000 m in Africa. ("2006 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species", 2006; Brooks, et al., 1985)

  • Range elevation
    0 to 5000 m
    0.00 to 16404.20 ft

Physical Description

Caprimulgus europaeus individuals reach lengths of 26 to 28 cm, with wingspans of 57 to 64 cm. European nightjars may weigh 41 to 101 grams. Standard base body color is gray to reddish-brown with complex cryptic overlaid markings of white, black and varying shades of brown. The body shape of nightjars is reminiscent of falcons, with long, pointed wings and long tails. European nightjars have brown irises, deep red mouths, and brown legs. Bristles ring their black bills. (Brooks, et al., 1985)

Adult males bear white lower throats, often divided into two distinct patches by a gray or orange-brown vertical stripe. Males have black-barred chests and undulating dark scapular lines. The most distinctive features are the white patches visible on the outer rectrices and the distal portions of the three outer primaries. Females appear similar, but have tan tail and wing patches or lack contrasting spots all together. Immature birds look very similar to females, but are usually paler with less contrast on the scapulars and bellies. Black web markings are far less extensive, making them appear lighter overall. (Brooks, et al., 1985)

Several subspecies of Caprimulgus europaeus are described:

Caprimulgus europaeus europaeus is found from Scandinavia east to Lake Baikal in Russia, with populations tapering off to the south along the East-West range. This subspecies is the largest.

Caprimulgus europaeus meridionalis is found in Western Europe, Northern Africa and east Mediterranean countries. Individuals of this subspecies are smaller and paler than C. europaeus europaeus.

Members of subspecies C. europaeus unwini are also small, but much lighter in color than other subspecies with gray base coloring. Caprimulgus europaeus unwin ranges through the Middle East, Central Asia and western China. These individuals possess larger white primary patches than the European subspecies.

Caprimulgus europaeus sarudnyi is medium-sized, and lighter colored than European subspecies, but more dominantly brownish than the gray C. europaeus unwini.

Caprimulgus europaeus plumipes is a Chinese subspecies. Among these individuals regular spotting present on the scapulars and upper coverts.

Caprimulgus europaeus dementievi rarely possess black-barred tail feathers, and are characterized by yellowish bellies. They range from western Mongolia across central Russia. (Brooks, et al., 1985)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes colored or patterned differently
  • male more colorful
  • Range mass
    41 to 101 g
    1.44 to 3.56 oz
  • Range length
    26 to 28 cm
    10.24 to 11.02 in
  • Range wingspan
    57 to 64 cm
    22.44 to 25.20 in


European nightjars breed between May and September. One male and one female form a bond lasting one year. The pair will raise one or two broods. Occasionally pairs may split, and the female may raise another brood fathered by a different male. Some reports tell of an extra male occasionally aiding a male-female pair in raising young. (Brooks, et al., 1985)

European nightjars form pairs and breed during spring and summer months. Usually one male and one female raise a brood of chicks, although occasionally another male will assist in raising one pair's young, or two females will lay their eggs in one nest. (Brooks, et al., 1985)

In a small, unlined scrape on the ground female European nightjars lay 2 to 4 smooth, white, elliptical eggs. The eggs may be marked or blotched irregularly and weigh between 7 and 9.9 grams. The female incubates the eggs for 17 to 18 days. Her mate will take short shifts while she leaves to feed at dawn and dusk. The semi-altricial young hatch asynchronously and fledge after 16 to 17 days. They become independent after about 16 more days. If conditions are favorable, a female will sometimes leave her firs brood with her mate when the chicks are about 14 days old to rear her second brood. European nightjars are mature and ready to breed after one year.

  • Breeding interval
    European nightjars breed once or twice yearly.
  • Breeding season
    Breeding occurs from May to September.
  • Range eggs per season
    2 to 4
  • Range time to hatching
    17 to 18 days
  • Range fledging age
    16 to 17 days
  • Range time to independence
    32 (low) days
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    1 (low) years
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    1 (low) years

Male European nightjars select nesting sites. Both parents provide food for the young. Female European nightjars are the primary incubators, although the male may care for the first young alone for a time if the female commits to producing a second brood. The young hatch with open eyes, but still must be fed. From about 19 days on, the young may accompany the male on foraging trips; he feeds his young on the ground or at the nest. (Brooks, et al., 1985)

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female


As of 1983 the oldest banded individual was recorded as 8 years old, but more recent estimates suggest European nightjars might live as long as 11 years. (Robinson, 2006)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: wild
    11 (high) years
  • Average lifespan
    Status: captivity
    11.9 years


European nightjars are not particularly gregarious. They live in pairs during the mating season and may migrate in groups of 20 or more. Single sex flocks may form in Africa during the winter. Caprimulgus europaeus individuals are crepuscular and forage in the dark, even sometimes on overcast days. Male European nightjars are territorial and will defend their breeding territories vigorously, fighting other males in the air or on the ground. During the daytime, when European nightjars are at rest, they often perch facing into the sun, to minimize their contrasting shadow (Brooks, et al., 1985; Cleere, 1998)

  • Range territory size
    .015 to .32 km^2

Home Range

Male nightjars arrive in the Palearctic before females and establish territories, with the intent of finding a mate. Territories range from 1.5 to 32 hectares with a maximum observed density of 20 pairs per square kilometer. (Cleere, 1998)

Communication and Perception

European nightjars use a wide variety of sounds to communicate. Vociferous males let out long "churring" vocalizations from perches within their territories, sometimes calling for 10 minutes continuously. When the male approaches the nest he often produces a burbling trill. Both males and females produce repeated sharp "qoik-qoik!" notes as contact calls. At the nest male and female birds make a grunting "wuff." Agitated birds hiss and babies beg for food with an insistent "brüh- brüh." According to recent sonogram analysis, each male nightjar also sings a unique song. European nightjars frequently clap their wings together as well, combining visual and acoustic elements in display. This wing clapping probably serves a number of purposes and is a form of communication generally directed at other European nightjars. Various flight patterns and ground behaviors are used to distract, intimidate, or attract other animals. This species is notable for feigning injury both in the air and on the ground. (Brooks, et al., 1985; Cleere, 1998)

European nightjars are noted for "wing clapping"; they open their wings and slap them together behind their backs, creating a smacking noise. Wing clapping is used in greeting, defense, intimidation and courting displays. During courtship, the male bird glides about with his wings in a V shape, frequently clapping them together. When a female alights on the ground, the male lands facing her and they sway in tandem. When the female ceases swaying, the male bobs up and down, opens his wings and spasms his tail momentarily before copulation begins. Once a pair has formed the two birds roost together. (Brooks, et al., 1985; Cleere, 1998)

Food Habits

European nightjars are crepuscular and noctural insectivores. They catch flying insects in their wide mouths with the aid of short bills and surrounding rictal bristles. Some common prey organisms include moths (Hepialidae, Cossidae, Pyralidae, Arctiidae, Lymantriidae) beetles (Carabidae, Dytiscidae, Chrysomelidae) mantids (Mantidae), mayflies (Ephemeroptera), dragonflies (Odonata), cockroaches (Blattaria), Hymenoptera, butterflies (Lepidoptera), and occasionally spiders (Araneae). Fat is accumulated before migration to aid in the journey south. (Cleere, 1998)

  • Animal Foods
  • insects
  • terrestrial non-insect arthropods


Caprimulgus europaeus is preyed on by various owls (Strigiformes) and raptors (Falconiformes), as well as adders (Vipera berus). Foxes (Vulpes vulpes), hedgehogs (Erinaceus europaeus), dogs (Canis lupus familiaris), magpies (Pica), crows (Corvus), and Eurasian jays (Garrulus glandarius), prey on European nightjar eggs. (Brooks, et al., 1985; Cleere, 1998)

The extreme cryptic markings of this species allow individuals to conceal themselves in broad daylight by perching motionless on a branch or stone and mimicking their substrate. European nightjars generally employ crypsis as their first defense. If pressed, members of this species perform various injury-feigning displays to distract or lure predators away from nest sites. Females will sometimes lie motionless on their sides for extended periods. Frequently these displays involve shaking spread or lifted wings while calling or hissing. Adults have also been known to chase away owls (Strix aluco and Althene noctua) and bats and actively dive at and graze human intruders. When alarmed the young open their bright red mouths and hiss, perhaps creating the impression of a snake or other dangerous creature. As the grow older they also open their wings to increase their perceived size. Eventually chicks shift their primary predator response to crypsis as well.

  • Anti-predator Adaptations
  • cryptic

Ecosystem Roles

European nightjars are generalist insectivores that help keep insect populations in check. Additionally, these birds provide nourishment for raptors, owls, and many medium-sized generalist predators. No specific mutualistic relationships between Caprimulgus europeaus and other species are described in the literature.

Haemoproteus blood parasites use European Nightjars as hosts. (Brooks, et al., 1985; Cleere, 1998; Coatney, 1936)

Commensal/Parasitic Species
  • Haemoproteus

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

European nightjars eat insects, which may be beneficial when there are many insect pests in the area. Historically, European nightjars have been prized quarry for Central Asian falconers, owing to their erratic and darting flight. (Ali and Ripley, 1983)

  • Positive Impacts
  • controls pest population

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

European nightjars have no known negative impacts on human economies. In the 1890's they were reportedly a nuisance to beekeepers and collectors of Lepidoptera. (Brown and Grice, 2005; Cleere, 1998)

Conservation Status

European nightjars are listed as a species of least concern by the IUCN Red List. This species is locally common in much of its Palearctic range, though distribution and numbers have recently been shrinking in Europe. Habitat loss and the use of pesticides has been blamed for these shrinking numbers. Breeding populations are estimated at between 290,000 and 830,000 pairs in Europe with an estimated 500,000 more pairs in Russia. ("2006 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species", 2006; Cleere, 1998)


Tanya Dewey (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

John McCallen (author), Stanford University, Terry Root (editor, instructor), Stanford University.



living in sub-Saharan Africa (south of 30 degrees north) and Madagascar.

World Map


living in the northern part of the Old World. In otherwords, Europe and Asia and northern Africa.

World Map


uses sound to communicate


young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.


Referring to an animal that lives in trees; tree-climbing.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


an animal that mainly eats meat


Found in coastal areas between 30 and 40 degrees latitude, in areas with a Mediterranean climate. Vegetation is dominated by stands of dense, spiny shrubs with tough (hard or waxy) evergreen leaves. May be maintained by periodic fire. In South America it includes the scrub ecotone between forest and paramo.


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

cooperative breeder

helpers provide assistance in raising young that are not their own


active at dawn and dusk


having markings, coloration, shapes, or other features that cause an animal to be camouflaged in its natural environment; being difficult to see or otherwise detect.


animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.


forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.


An animal that eats mainly insects or spiders.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds


Having one mate at a time.


having the capacity to move from one place to another.


This terrestrial biome includes summits of high mountains, either without vegetation or covered by low, tundra-like vegetation.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


active during the night


reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.


Referring to something living or located adjacent to a waterbody (usually, but not always, a river or stream).

scrub forest

scrub forests develop in areas that experience dry seasons.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


lives alone


uses touch to communicate


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


Living on the ground.


defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement


the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.

tropical savanna and grassland

A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.


A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5° N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.


uses sight to communicate


2006. "2006 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species" (On-line). International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. Accessed May 28, 2007 at

Ali, S., S. Ripley. 1983. Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan Vol. 4.. New York: Oxford University Press.

Brooks, D., E. Dunn, R. Gillmor, P. Hollom, R. Hudson, E. Nicholson, M. Oglivie, P. Olney, C. Roselaar, K. Simmons, K. Voous, D. Wallace, J. Wattel, M. Wilson. 1985. Handbook of the Birds of Europe and the Middle East and North Africa The Birds of the Western Palearctic. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press.

Brown, A., P. Grice. 2005. Birds in England. Italy: T & A D Poyser.

Cleere, N. 1998. Nightjars: A Guide to the Nightjars, Nighthawks, and Their Relatives. Hong Kong: Yale University Press.

Coatney, G. 1936. A Check-List and Host-Index of the Genus Haemoproteus. The Journal of Parasitology, Vol. 22 No. 1: 88-105. Accessed May 28, 2007 at

Robinson, R. 2006. "European Nightjar" (On-line). BTOweb Birdfacts. Accessed May 28, 2007 at