This afternoon, I was walking out of my building in the heart of the New Orleans Central Business District when I saw two people kneeling down around a large bird that had flown into the side of the glass building. “I think it’s an owl” someone said. “I think it’s dead” someone else added. I knew what it was, although I’d never seen one this close.
Chuck-will’s-widow is the largest North American member of a very strange looking group of birds called the nightjars. They are nocturnal, primarily insectivorous birds (although occasionally, chuck-will’s-widows have been known to eat other small birds and bats) that fly through the air at night using their huge mouth to snatch prey out of the air. There are three species of nightjar that we can see in the New Orleans area depending on the time of year. The Common Nighthawk’s call is a distinctive sound of our summer nights frequently heard overhead at nighttime outdoor football games while the Eastern Whip-poor-will and Chuck-will’s-widow are migrants although they can be found in the northern forests of Louisiana if you know what to listen for. I honestly never thought I’d see one in New Orleans. The weird part is this is the second one I’ve seen this week.
So, myself and another concerned citizen were trying to figure out what to do. If the sidewalk weren’t so busy, I probably would’ve just left the bird alone to recover, but some people walking by were so caught up in their cell phone conversations, I literally had to move in front of them to keep them from stepping on this large bird laying on the ground. One guy said someone should put it out of its misery (with a shoe to the head), while a groundskeeper moved in with a dustpan and broom to sweep it up.
We asked the groundskeeper if he had a box while I made some calls. Around this time, the bird started stirring and I was hoping it would just fly off. Unfortunately, it took flight and immediately struck the glass window of the restaurant fifteen feet in front of it. We moved to put the bird in the box while it was stunned and it snapped its head up at us and opened its mouth. These birds have intimidating mouths. It almost looked like it opened up about 180 degrees wide.
This picture I found on Flickr is a good shot of what a Chuck-will’s-widow looks like with its mouth open. Terrifying.
When it opened its mouth, we could see blood. We moved to put it in the box again, this time, bringing the box up from behind and gently grabbing near the ends of its wings. It went into the box and curled up in a corner. I was relieved because I was very concerned that the box was too big and thought it might flail trying to escape and hurt itself even more.
Following some advice, I drove it to the Audubon Zoo and dropped it off with their hospital staff. They got me to fill out a form with my contact information, what had happened and what kind of species it was but they informed me that I probably wouldn’t ever hear back as to what happened to it. It was a little reassuring that a chuck had been brought in last year after a similar building collision and had been released at the Audubon Nature Center after a night in observation. The staff at the zoo front desk said that their doctors would do what they could, but if the bird was too injured, it would have to be euthanized. I told them that that was probably fine. It would be better than the bird suffering a broken neck and more likely an easier death than at the bottom of that sidewalk guy’s boot.
All-in-all, it was an interesting experience. I hope the bird makes it and learns to stay away from glass buildings in the future.