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Discover the Intriguing World of Donaldson-Smith’s Nightjar

When it comes to the world of birds, there are countless species to explore, each with its unique physical and behavioral characteristics. It can be quite an adventure to study and observe them in the wild, but it all starts with understanding who they are and how they differ from one another.

In this article, we will take a closer look at Donaldson-Smith’s Nightjar, an intriguing species of nocturnal bird that has captured the attention of bird enthusiasts and researchers alike.


Field Identification

Donaldson-Smith’s Nightjar(Caprimulgus donaldsoni) is a relatively small bird that measures around 22-25cm in length and has a wingspan of around 54-56cm. They have a short, slightly curved bill, large eyes, and a wide mouth that serves to catch insects in flight.

The coloration of their plumage varies between individuals and may range from brownish-grey to reddish-brown, with dark brown patterns that blend seamlessly with the surroundings.

Similar Species

A common mistake is to classify Donaldson-Smith’s Nightjar as a Taita Nightjar, and vice versa. The two species are quite similar in terms of appearance and can only be reliably distinguished through specific vocalizations.

To the untrained ear, their calls might sound identical, so it is best to use other physical characteristics as general guidelines.


Donaldson-Smith’s Nightjar has two primary plumage types that are used to identify specific individuals – the breeding plumage and the non-breeding plumage. The breeding plumage is characterized by a more vibrant and conspicuous pattern of markings, which plays a significant role in the courtship and mating activity of these birds.

The non-breeding plumage, on the other hand, is less showy and serves mainly as camouflage to blend with their surroundings during roosting and nesting.


Donaldson-Smith’s Nightjar undergoes two molts per year, which take place during the post-breeding and post-non-breeding periods. During these molts, the birds shed their old feathers and replace them with new ones, which are typically more robust and durable.

This helps to ensure that the birds can maintain their aerodynamic capabilities and remain warm and protected as they navigate their way through different climates.


Donaldson-Smith’s Nightjar is a fascinating bird species that offers a unique insight into the world of nocturnal avian life. While there is still much to learn about these birds, our brief overview of their identification, plumages, and molts can provide a good starting point for those who wish to explore and study them further.

With continued research and observation, we can deepen our understanding of these birds, their behaviors, and their role in the ecosystem.

Systematics History

Donaldson-Smith’s Nightjar (Caprimulgus donaldsoni) was first described by F. J.

Jackson in 1902. It was initially classified as a subspecies of the White-tailed Nightjar, but further studies revealed important differences that led to its recognition as a distinct species.

Systematic revision and genetic studies have confirmed this status, placing it in the African Caprimulgus clade, which includes various other African nightjar species and subspecies.

Geographic Variation

Donaldson-Smith’s Nightjar has a relatively limited geographic range, occurring mainly in East Africa, from southern Ethiopia to northern Tanzania, and possibly also in Somalia and Kenya. Within this range, there is some variation in the coloration of its plumage, which is likely influenced by local environmental factors, such as vegetation and temperature.


Currently, there are two recognized subspecies of Donaldson-Smith’s Nightjar: Caprimulgus donaldsoni sharpei and Caprimulgus donaldsoni donaldsoni. The former occurs mainly in southern Ethiopia, while the latter is found further south, from Kenya to northern Tanzania.

The two subspecies differ primarily in their plumage characteristics, with the Sharpe’s Nightjar featuring a more rufous tone and a rounded tail, while the nominate subspecies has a slightly more mottled, greyish-brown coloration and a slightly forked tail.

Related Species

Genetic studies have revealed that Donaldson-Smith’s Nightjar is most closely related to the Abyssinian Nightjar (Caprimulgus poliocephalus), with which it shares several morphological and vocal traits. The two species likely diverged from a common ancestor in the early part of the Pleistocene epoch, around 2.5 million years ago, with subsequent adaptation to different ecological niches leading to further divergence.

Historical Changes in Distribution

Historical records suggest that Donaldson-Smith’s Nightjar was once more widespread than it is today, occurring as far west as Lake Victoria and possibly even further to the west and north. However, habitat loss and fragmentation, hunting, and other anthropogenic factors have led to a significant decline in its distribution and abundance over the last century.

This species is now considered to be Near Threatened by the IUCN Red List, with continuing declines in some parts of its range, particularly in Ethiopia and Somalia. Human activities, such as agriculture, grazing, and logging have resulted in the destruction of large swaths of native vegetation and forest cover, which provide crucial foraging, nesting, and roosting habitats for Donaldson-Smith’s Nightjar.

In some areas, the conversion of natural habitats to intensive agriculture or livestock grazing has significantly reduced the availability of insect prey, upon which this species relies heavily. In addition to direct environmental pressures, Donaldson-Smith’s Nightjar is also vulnerable to predation and disturbance by domestic animals, such as cats, dogs, and livestock, which may disturb nesting sites and cause mortality of eggs or chicks.

It is also susceptible to collision with vehicles and infrastructure, such as power lines and wind turbines, particularly during nocturnal movements.


Donaldson-Smith’s Nightjar is a fascinating and remarkable species of nocturnal bird, with a unique set of adaptations and behaviors that allow it to thrive in a challenging and dynamic environment. While it faces numerous threats and challenges, both historical and ongoing, there are still many opportunities to conserve and protect this species, through habitat restoration, predator control, and education and outreach efforts.

By working together, we can help ensure that this beautiful bird continues to grace the African night skies for generations to come.


Donaldson-Smith’s Nightjar is a species that is generally associated with open and semi-open habitats, such as savannas, grasslands, and woodlands, usually located in lowland or mid-altitude areas. It adapts well to habitats that have undergone some minor disturbance such as fire or browsing, so it can also be found in areas with some degree of anthropogenic influence, such as agricultural lands.

However, it seems to prefer habitats with some degree of woody vegetation cover, which provides shelter and roosting sites as well as increased insect prey. Within its range, the preferred vegetation types used by Donaldson-Smith’s Nightjar include various forms of Acacia woodland, which are abundant throughout much of eastern Africa and are an important food source for insects.

It also uses other types of open habitats with the presence of scattered trees and shrubs.

Movements and Migration

Donaldson-Smith’s Nightjar is considered to be a sedentary species, which means that most individuals remain within their limited geographic range throughout the year and do not undertake significant movements or migrations. However, there is some evidence to suggest that they may make more localized movements in response to seasonal changes in food availability or other environmental factors.

At least one study has suggested that in some areas, Donaldson-Smith’s Nightjar engages in some degree of seasonal altitudinal migration, moving from higher elevation habitats during the dry season to lower elevation habitats during the wet season. However, this behavior has not been well documented in other areas where the species occurs, so its actual extent and significance is still not fully understood.

In some parts of its range, Donaldson-Smith’s Nightjar may also exhibit some degree of nomadism, moving in response to localized changes in environmental conditions or the availability of prey. However, this behavior is typically not widespread or regular, and most of the population remains in the same general area throughout the year.

Conservation Implications

While Donaldson-Smith’s Nightjar is not considered to be a migratory species, its sedentary nature does not necessarily make it immune to the various conservation threats and challenges facing migratory birds, such as habitat fragmentation, degradation, and loss, or the impact of climate change on the availability of food, water, and nesting sites. To conserve this species, it is essential to protect and restore the habitats that it uses, promoting sustainable land use practices, and reduced human influence in important nesting and feeding areas.

This requires the active involvement and cooperation of local communities, such as promoting agroforestry and sustainable pastoralism practices that maintain the integrity of forest and savanna habitats as well as providing economic benefits to local residents. Moreover, efforts to improve habitat connectivity, such as the creation or maintenance of corridors that link isolated habitats, can help to facilitate the movements of Donaldson-Smith’s Nightjar populations and increase their resilience to environmental changes.


Donaldson-Smith’s Nightjar is a remarkable bird species with unique characteristics, adaptations, and behaviors that make it well suited to its complex and dynamic environment. While it faces numerous challenges and threats, such as habitat loss and degradation, there are still many opportunities to conserve and protect this species, through habitat restoration, land use planning, and community-based conservation initiatives.

With adequate support and resources, it is possible to maintain vibrant populations of this species and ensure that it continues to grace the African night skies for generations to come.

Diet and Foraging


Donaldson-Smith’s Nightjar is a specialized insectivorous bird species that feeds almost exclusively on flying insects, such as moths, beetles, and flies, which it actively captures in the air using its wide mouth, aided by its large eyes and the whisker-like feathers around its bill. It is strictly nocturnal, resting during the day and actively hunting at night, when many of its prey species are most active.


The diet of Donaldson-Smith’s Nightjar primarily consists of large moths, beetles, and other flying insects, which make up an estimated 90% of its food intake. The rest is made up of smaller, diurnal insects, such as grasshoppers and crickets.

This species is known to consume a wide variety of insect species, including both harmful and beneficial insects, depending on their availability.

Metabolism and Temperature Regulation

Donaldson-Smith’s Nightjar has adapted to its nocturnal, insectivorous lifestyle and the challenges this poses to its metabolism and energy balance. With a low basal metabolic rate and an ability to lower its body temperature at night, this species is highly efficient in its use of energy and able to maintain its metabolic functions even during extended periods of inactivity.

Sounds and Vocal Behaviors


Donaldson-Smith’s Nightjar is known for its remarkable vocal behavior, which plays a crucial role in courtship, territoriality, and other social interactions. The typical call of this species is a deep, resonating “chuurr” or “qwurr” sound, which may be repeated several times in a row and can be heard from a considerable distance.

In addition to its primary vocalizations, Donaldson-Smith’s Nightjar also produces a variety of other vocal sounds, such as trills, whistles, and clicks. Interestingly, the sounds produced by this species seem to vary between different populations and regions, suggesting some degree of local cultural variation in vocal behavior.

During the breeding season, males often perform elaborate aerial displays and vocalizations, flying over territories and perching on prominent objects, such as trees and bushes. They use these displays to attract females and defend their territory against other males.

In some cases, males may engage in aggressive behaviors, such as attack flights and skirmishes, to assert their dominance over rival males.


Donaldson-Smith’s Nightjar is an intriguing bird species with unique adaptations and behaviors that make it well suited to its complex and dynamic environment. Its specialized diet and nocturnal lifestyle, combined with its remarkable vocalizations, make it a fascinating subject of research and observation for bird enthusiasts and researchers alike.

By continuing to study and learn about this remarkable species, we can deepen our understanding of its ecology and behavior and develop effective conservation strategies to ensure its continued survival.



Donaldson-Smith’s Nightjar is a ground-dwelling bird species that is known for its slow and somewhat wobbly gait. It is also capable of short but rapid flights, which it uses primarily for escape or territorial defense.

However, much of its movement is limited to walking or running on the ground, where it is most effective at capturing insects.

Self Maintenance

Like other birds, Donaldson-Smith’s Nightjar engages in a variety of self-maintenance behaviors, such as preening, sunning, and dust-bathing. Preening is essential for maintaining the integrity and quality of its feathers, which play important roles in thermoregulation, flight, and camouflage.

Sunning helps to promote vitamin D synthesis and improve feather condition, while dust-bathing helps to remove excess oils and parasites from feathers.

Agonistic Behavior

Donaldson-Smith’s Nightjar is not typically an aggressive species and usually avoids conflict whenever possible. However, during the breeding season, males may engage in more aggressive behaviors, such as territorial displays, vocalizations, chase flights, and physical attacks on rivals.

Females also exhibit some degree of territoriality, defending nesting sites against other females and males.

Sexual Behavior

Donaldson-Smith’s Nightjar is considered a monogamous species, with pairs bonding during the breeding season and remaining together for the duration of the reproductive cycle. During courtship, males engage in elaborate aerial displays and vocalizations, flying over territories and perching on prominent objects.

Females are generally attracted to males with the most impressive vocalizations and displays, indicating their genetic quality and fitness.


Donaldson-Smith’s Nightjar typically breeds during the rainy season, which provides increased insect abundance and greater availability of food for the growing chicks. Females lay a single egg, which is incubated for around 16-18 days before hatching.

The incubation duty is shared by both parents and begins after the first egg is laid. Once hatched, the chick is reliant on its parents for feeding, brooding, and protection.

Both parents participate in the feeding of the chick, providing a variety of insect prey, using their specialized hunting techniques to capture a range of different species.

Demography and Populations

Donaldson-Smith’s Nightjar populations are typically relatively low density, and their breeding patterns and distribution suggest that relatively few individuals in any given population are successful in breeding each year. Adult mortality rates are relatively low, but chick mortality can be quite high, particularly during droughts or periods of food shortage.

Like many other nocturnal birds, Donaldson-Smith’s Nightjar is challenging to survey and monitor, and little is known about the overall size and structure of its populations. However, available evidence suggests that populations may be declining in some areas, particularly in Ethiopia and Somalia, where habitat loss and degradation are most severe.

This species is classified as near threatened by the IUCN Red List, highlighting the need for more research and conservation efforts to ensure its continued survival.


Donaldson-Smith’s Nightjar is a unique and remarkable bird species, with a range of specialized adaptations and behaviors that have allowed it to thrive in its complex and challenging environment. By studying its behavioral and reproductive patterns, demography, and populations, we can develop effective conservation and management strategies to protect this species and help ensure that it continues to grace the African night sky for generations to come.

In conclusion, Donaldson-Smith’s Nightjar is a remarkable and unique bird species that has adapted remarkably well to its environment. Its wide mouth, large eyes, and nocturnal lifestyle, combined with its remarkable vocalizations and specialized adaptations, make it a fascinating subject of research and observation for bird enthusiasts and researchers alike.

Its specialized diet, movements and migration patterns, demographic trends, and breeding behaviors illustrate how complex and dynamic this species is. As with many species, it faces numerous threats and challenges, including habitat loss and fragmentation, predation, and the impact of climate change.

However, continued research and conservation efforts can help to protect and preserve this remarkable bird, ensuring that it continues to thrive in the African night sky for years to come.

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