Bird O'clock

10 Fascinating Facts About the Australian Owlet-nightjar You Need to Know

The Australian Owlet-nightjar, Aegotheles cristatus, is a small nocturnal bird that is commonly found throughout Australia and Tasmania. Despite its name, it is not an owl but is instead classified within the nightjar family.

This bird is known for its distinctive calls, and its secretive behavior has earned it the nickname “ghost bird.” In this article, we’ll delve into the identification of the Australian Owlet-nightjar – including its field identification and similar species – as well as its various plumages and molts.


Field Identification

The Australian Owlet-nightjar is a small, stocky bird that measures around 18-23cm in length and weighs between 45-70g. It has a distinctive rounded head with large eyes and a wide, gaping mouth.

It is primarily brown in color, with a white chin and a reddish-brown breast. Its wings are broad and pointed, and it has a short, square tail.

One of the best ways to identify the Australian Owlet-nightjar is by its call. It has a distinctive “prrt-prrt” call that is repeated at intervals throughout the night.

This call is often heard before the bird is seen, as the bird tends to be very secretive and difficult to spot.

Similar Species

The Australian Owlet-nightjar can be easily confused with several other bird species. The most common of these are the Tawny Frogmouth and the Southern Boobook.

Tawny Frogmouths are larger than the Owlet-nightjar and have a much more robust bill. They also have a prominent “eyebrow” above their eye, which the Owlet-nightjar lacks.

They are often seen perched in trees during the day, while the Owlet-nightjar is more active at night. Southern Boobooks are closer in size to the Owlet-nightjar and have similar brown plumage.

However, they have a more slender, pointed head and a distinctive white “V” shape on their forehead. They also have yellow eyes, while the Owlet-nightjar’s eyes are dark.


The Australian Owlet-nightjar has several distinct plumages that it passes through during the course of its life. Juvenile birds have a much duller brown plumage than adults, and lack the distinctive white chin.

They also have a prominent white stripe above their eye, which is absent in adults. Adult birds have a light brown plumage with a white chin and reddish-brown breast.

They have distinctive black speckles on their wings, which help to camouflage them when perched on tree branches.


The Australian Owlet-nightjar undergoes two molts each year – one in autumn and one in spring. During these molts, the bird sheds its old feathers and replaces them with new ones.

The autumn molt sees the bird replace its primary feathers (the feathers at the tip of its wing). During this time, the bird is flightless for around 3-4 weeks while its new feathers grow.

The spring molt sees the bird replace its body feathers. During this time, the feathers fall out in a specific order, starting with the head and working its way down the body.


The Australian Owlet-nightjar is a fascinating bird species that is well-known in Australia for its distinctive calls and secretive behavior. While it can be easily confused with other birds such as the Tawny Frogmouth and Southern Boobook, its unique plumage and night-time activity make it easy to identify with some careful observation.

Understanding the various plumages and molts of the Australian Owlet-nightjar is key to being able to identify it with confidence.

Systematics History

The Australian Owlet-nightjar, Aegotheles cristatus, has a rich systematics history that dates back to the 1800s when the bird was first described by ornithologists. Early taxonomists placed the Owlet-nightjar in the Caprimulgidae or nightjar family, due to its nocturnal habits and bird-like appearance.

However, over time, anatomical and molecular studies have suggested that the Owlet-nightjar is better placed in its own monotypic family, Aegothelidae.

Geographic Variation

The Australian Owlet-nightjar is a widely distributed species found throughout mainland Australia and Tasmania. It inhabits a range of habitats, including woodland, forests, heathland, and even some urban areas.

There is some geographic variation in the species, with birds from different areas showing slight differences in size and plumage.


There are currently three recognized subspecies of the Australian Owlet-nightjar, which are distinguished primarily by their geographic location and slight variation in plumage. The eastern subspecies, Aegotheles cristatus cristatus, is found in eastern Australia from Queensland to Victoria.

It is slightly larger and paler than the other two subspecies, with a more orange-brown breast. The western subspecies, Aegotheles cristatus leucogaster, is found in western Australia.

It is smaller and darker than the eastern subspecies, with a more reddish-brown breast. The Tasmanian subspecies, Aegotheles cristatus tasmanicus, is found only on the island of Tasmania.

It is intermediate in size and plumage between the eastern and western subspecies, with a more chestnut-brown breast.

Related Species

The Australian Owlet-nightjar is a member of its own monotypic family, Aegothelidae, which includes only one other species – the New Caledonian Owlet-nightjar, Aegotheles savesi. This species is found only on the island of New Caledonia in the South Pacific and is closely related to the Australian Owlet-nightjar.

Historical Changes to Distribution

The Australian Owlet-nightjar has historically been a widespread species throughout mainland Australia, and Tasmania. However, like many other Australian species, it has suffered from habitat loss, fragmentation, and degradation resulting from land clearing, urbanization, and agricultural practices.

As a result, in some areas, such as the Sydney region of New South Wales, populations of the Owlet-nightjar have declined significantly. In addition to habitat loss, the Australian Owlet-nightjar has also been affected by historical changes in distribution resulting from climatic fluctuations.

During periods of severe drought, for example, populations of the Owlet-nightjar may contract to smaller areas where suitable habitat and food resources are available. Conversely, during periods of increased rainfall and vegetation growth, populations may expand to new areas where they were previously absent.

More recently, the Australian Owlet-nightjar has also been impacted by climate change, with rising temperatures and altered rainfall patterns affecting its distribution and behavior. For example, changes in rainfall patterns may result in a reduction in suitable nesting sites, while increased temperatures may result in a decline in insect populations – a major food source for the Owlet-nightjar.


The systematics history of the Australian Owlet-nightjar reflects our increasing understanding of evolutionary relationships and genetic diversity. The identification of three recognized subspecies of the Owlet-nightjar highlights the slight but significant geographic variation that exists within this species.

Historical changes to the distribution of the Owlet-nightjar have been shaped by both natural fluctuations in climate and human-induced impacts, including habitat loss and fragmentation. As we continue to grapple with the challenges of climate change and land-use change, understanding the natural history of species such as the Australian Owlet-nightjar is critical to ensuring the long-term survival of these unique and fascinating birds.


The Australian Owlet-nightjar inhabits a wide range of habitats, including savannah, woodland, and forest. It prefers areas with a mix of open ground and trees, as it requires perches for hunting insects and suitable nesting sites.

The species can also be found in more urbanized areas, such as parks and gardens, where it preys on insects attracted to street and garden lights. Within its preferred habitats, the Australian Owlet-nightjar is most commonly found in areas with mature trees and a dense understory of shrubs and grasses.

This gives the bird ample hunting opportunities while providing suitable nesting sites and cover from predators.

Movements and Migration

The Australian Owlet-nightjar is a non-migratory species, meaning it does not undertake long-distance movements or seasonal migrations. Instead, it is largely sedentary, remaining within its preferred habitat throughout the year.

However, the species does exhibit some nomadic tendencies, with individuals occasionally moving to new areas in search of food or nesting sites. During the breeding season, male Australian Owlet-nightjars are known to engage in an impressive courtship display.

They will perch in a prominent location, such as the top of a tree or a fence post, and begin calling in a loud, mechanical voice. This call can be heard over long distances and is used to attract females to the male’s territory.

Once a pair bond has been established, the male and female construct a simple nest using dry leaves and twigs. This is typically located on a horizontal branch of a tree or beneath a tuft of grass, and is well-camouflaged to avoid detection by predators.

The female will lay a clutch of two to three eggs, which she will incubate for around 25 days. After the eggs have hatched, both parents are involved in feeding the chicks.

The young birds fledge after around 35 days, and are then independent, although they may remain in the vicinity of the parents for several weeks.


The Australian Owlet-nightjar is a fascinating bird species that is well-adapted to a wide range of habitats. While it is not a migratory species, it does exhibit some nomadic tendencies and can occasionally move to new areas in search of food or nesting sites.

During the breeding season, male Owlet-nightjars engage in an impressive courtship display, which is used to attract females to their territory. Both parents are involved in caring for the young, which fledge after around 35 days.

Understanding the movements and habitat preferences of the Australian Owlet-nightjar is critical to ensuring the long-term survival of this unique and fascinating species. Ensuring the adequate protection of important habitat areas will help to safeguard populations of this bird for generations to come.

Diet and Foraging


The Australian Owlet-nightjar is an insectivorous bird, and the vast majority of its diet consists of flying insects such as moths, beetles, ants, and termites. The bird hunts for insects by perching on a tree branch or other elevated location and then flying out to catch its prey in mid-air.

It is also known to catch insects by gleaning them from foliage while in flight.


The diet of the Australian Owlet-nightjar varies depending on the season, with the bird consuming more insects during the warmer months when insects are abundant. During the cooler months, the bird may supplement its diet with small vertebrates such as lizards, frogs, and spiders.

A study of the bird’s diet in south-eastern Australia found that moths were the most common prey item, followed by beetles, ants, and termites.

Metabolism and Temperature Regulation

As an endothermic bird, the Australian Owlet-nightjar has a high metabolic rate and needs to maintain a constant body temperature. During periods of cold weather, the bird is able to regulate its body temperature by reducing its metabolic rate and fluffing up its feathers to trap heat.

Conversely, during periods of hot weather, the bird is able to dissipate heat by increasing blood flow to its bare skin patches.

Sounds and Vocal Behavior


The Australian Owlet-nightjar is known for its unique vocalizations, which consist of a series of mechanical-sounding calls that are repeated at regular intervals throughout the night. The bird’s call has been described as sounding like “prrt-prrt,” with each call lasting for around half a second.

The calls are produced by the male and are used to attract females to their territory during the breeding season. The calls can be heard over a considerable distance, with some reports of them being heard up to 1km away.

In addition to its distinctive calls, the Australian Owlet-nightjar is also known for its wing clapping behavior. This involves the bird clapping its wings together above its head, producing a loud, cracking sound.

The purpose of this behavior is not entirely clear but is thought to be a form of communication between individuals or a territorial display.


The Australian Owlet-nightjar is a unique and fascinating bird species with a highly specialized diet of flying insects. It is able to maintain its body temperature through a combination of metabolic regulation and behavior, allowing it to survive in a wide range of climatic conditions.

The bird’s unique vocalizations and wing clapping behavior are critical for communication and territorial defense during the breeding season. Understanding the intricacies of the Australian Owlet-nightjar’s feeding behavior, vocal communication, and temperature regulation is key to ensuring the effective management and conservation of this important species.



The Australian Owlet-nightjar is a ground-dwelling bird that moves relatively slowly and carefully through its preferred habitats. Its short wings make it an inefficient flier, so the bird is more likely to run or hop along the ground.

When it flies, it typically only rises a few meters off the ground before landing again. Its primary mode of hunting, however, is from a perch, where it lies in wait for flying insects to come within its reach.

Self Maintenance

The Australian Owlet-nightjar is primarily a nocturnal bird, which means that it spends much of its day roosting in a concealed location, such as a tree cavity or dense foliage. During the day, the bird will typically enter a state of torpor, reducing its metabolic rate to conserve energy.

This also helps to minimize exposure to predators.

Agonistic Behavior

The Australian Owlet-nightjar is a non-aggressive bird that is predominantly solitary in behavior. However, during the breeding season, males may engage in agonistic displays to assert dominance or defend their territory.

This can include an erect posture, fluffing of feathers, and vocalizations.

Sexual behavior

The Australian Owlet-nightjar is a monogamous species, with males and females forming long-term pair bonds during the breeding season. Males are responsible for attracting females to their territory using their distinctive calls and courtship displays.

Once a bond has been established, both parents contribute to nest-building and the rearing of young.


The breeding season of the Australian Owlet-nightjar occurs from August to February, with peak activity occurring in spring and early summer. During this time, males will engage in elaborate courtship displays, which involve vocalization and physical displays such as puffing up their feathers to appear larger.

Once a mate has been established, construction of a simple nest begins, which consists of a small depression in the ground lined with leaves, grass, and other suitable materials. The female will lay a clutch of two to three eggs, which are left to incubate for around 25 days.

The female incubates the eggs during the day, while the male takes over at night. After hatching, both parents share the responsibilities of caring for the young, which includes feeding the chicks and keeping them warm.

The young fledge at around 35 days old and are then independent.

Demography and Populations

The Australian Owlet-nightjar is a relatively common species throughout mainland Australia and Tasmania. However, like many other Australian bird species, it has been impacted by habitat degradation, fragmentation, and loss.

As a result, it is considered a species of conservation concern in some areas, particularly in urbanized regions where suitable habitat is limited. Population studies have shown that the Australian Owlet-nightjar exists at low densities, with an estimated 2-4 pairs per square kilometer in suitable habitat.

The bird’s nocturnal behavior and secretive nature can make it difficult to monitor populations accurately. Nevertheless, studies have suggested that populations of the Australian Owlet-nightjar may be declining in some areas due to habitat loss.

Efforts to conserve this species have focused on habitat management and restoration, particularly in areas where the species is known to breed. This includes the conservation and management of mature trees, grassy understory, and other important features of the bird’s preferred habitat.


The Australian Owlet-nightjar is a unique and fascinating bird species that has adapted to a range of different habitats, behaviors, and reproductive strategies. Understanding its behavior, reproductive biology, and population dynamics is critical to ensuring effective conservation and management of this important species.

Efforts to safeguard the habitats and ecosystems of the Australian Owlet-nightjar will help to ensure the survival of this unique and fascinating bird for generations to come. The Australian Owlet-nightjar, Aegotheles cristatus, is a unique and fascinating bird species that has adapted to a range of different habitats, behaviors, and reproductive strategies.

Its nocturnal nature and secretive behavior add to the allure and mystery of this intriguing bird. Through the understanding of its systematics history, movements and migrations, vocal behavior, and breeding biology, we can deepen our appreciation and knowledge of this species.

Necessary conservation efforts and habitat management and restoration will help protect the Australian Owlet-nightjar and ensure its survival for generations to come, perpetuating our observations and learning for the future.

Popular Posts