Common poorwill mistakenly ‘saved,’ brought to WERC

Common poorwill

Garlic ice cream, garlic Jelly Bellies, garlic cheesecake, garlic grasshoppers. Well, maybe the last won’t be offered at the Gilroy Garlic Festival (July 27-29) this year, but who knows? The parents of this unusual little baby bird just might have acquired a taste for spicy bugs when they set up “housing” next door to a Gilroy garlic stand.   
Instead of garlicky treats, staff at the Wildlife Education and Rehabilitation Center hand-feed the hungry common poorwill lots and lots of waxworms “seasoned” with special vitamins. Later, when he’s transferred to an outdoor enclosure for pre-release, there will be plenty of live crickets for him to snack on. Unlike most aerial foragers that perch in trees looking down for prey, poorwills typically sit on the ground looking UP and flying or jumping for bugs to scoop into their broad mouth. Its talon-like feet are not used to catch insect prey, but are perfect for gripping the ground of the harsh landscape that is its habitat.
The common poorwill lays its eggs in a shallow scraping on the ground, near brush or grasses. But the well-meaning person who found this young poorwill didn’t realize that being on the ground was normal behavior for the nocturnal (night hunting) species and mistakenly “rescued” it last month. Because this is a rarely seen bird, especially in wildlife rehabilitation, WERC has not had a lot of experience with the species, having only encountered the bird a couple of times during the past 30 years. And those were older birds. Staff researched the baby’s special-needs food and housing – by contacting other wildlife rehabilitators around the country for advice.
The bird’s genus name, Phalaenoptilus is a compound of Greek phalaina (moth) and ptilon (feather). The species name nuttallii honors American ornithologist Thomas Nuttall, and the bird is sometimes called “Nuttall’s poorwill.”  It was given its common name for its mellow whistling call, poor-will. However, this particular bird isn’t yet making that pleasant sound. Instead, he squeaks – almost constantly – especially when he wants to be fed. Poorwills are also noted to make a snake-like hissing sound when they’re threatened.
The 7- to 8-inch long poorwill is a member of the nightjar family and ranges from British Columbia in Canada through the western United States to northern Mexico, typically inhabiting dry, open areas, including desert and grasslands. It is the only bird known to go into a hibernation-like state called torpor for extended periods. It can slow its metabolic rate and drop its body temperature, allowing the bird to go for weeks to months without food and can help it survive cold spells when its insect prey might not be active. Though only fairly recently has scientific research been done on this behavior, it has been long noted by the Native American Hopi tribe, whose word for the bird means “The Sleeping One.”
WERC will contact the Audubon Society for help in locating a suitable site to release the poorwill. The bird won’t be returned to the spot where he was found because it’s surrounded by a large parking lot and highways with zooming cars. But he will be released in the general vicinity, somewhere where there is an abundance of juicy beetles and moths, a delicacy for poorwills that rivals a plate of garlic tri-tip for humans.

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