Aegothelidae – Owlet-nightjars

Australian Owlet-Nightjar Aegotheles cristatus ©Ian Montgomery Website

The Aegothelidae or Owlet-nightjars are small crepuscular birds related to the nightjars and frogmouths; they are an exclusively Australasian group. Most are native to New Guinea, but some species extend to Australia, the Moluccas, and New Caledonia. The monotypic family has one genus Aegotheles.

Owlet-nightjars are insectivores that hunt mostly in the air but sometimes on the ground; their soft plumage is a cryptic mixture of browns and paler shades, they have fairly small, weak feet (but larger and stronger than those of frogmouths or nightjars) and a tiny bill that opens extraordinarily wide, surrounded by prominent whiskers. Their wings are short, with 10 primaries and about 11 secondaries; their tails are long and rounded.

The relationship between the owlet-nightjars and the (traditional) Caprimulgiformes has long been controversial and obscure and remains so today: in the 19th century they were regarded as a subfamily of the frogmouths, and they are still generally considered to be related to the frogmouths and/or the nightjars. It appears though that that they are not so closely related to either as previously thought, and that the owlet-nightjars share a more recent common ancestor with the Apodiformes. It has been suggested that they should be considered a distinct order, Aegotheliformes. This, the caprimulgiform lineage(s), and the Apodiformes, are postulated to form a clade called Cypselomorphae, with the owlet-nightjars and the Apodiformes forming the clade Daedalornithes.

However, a comprehensive 2003 study incorporating DNA sequencing suggests that there are 10 species of owlet-nightjar; they are:

Feline Owlet-Nightjar Aegotheles insignis
Starry (Spangled) Owlet-Nightjar Aegotheles tatei
Moluccan Owlet-Nightjar (Long-whiskered) Aegotheles crinifrons
Wallace’s Owlet-Nightjar Aegotheles wallacii
Archbold’s Owlet-Nightjar Aegotheles archboldi
Mountain Owlet-Nightjar Aegotheles albertisi
New Caledonian (Enigmatic) Owlet-Nightjar Aegotheles savesi
Barred Owlet-Nightjar Aegotheles bennettii
Vogelkop Owlet-Nightjar Aegotheles affinis
Australian Owlet-Nightjar Aegotheles cristatus

Number of Species
  • Number of bird species: 10

Useful Reading
  • Nightjars

    A Guide to the Nightjars and Related Nightbirds by Nigel Cleere and Dave Nurney Pica Press 1998 ISBN: 1873403488 Buy this book from
Other Links
  • Breeding Biology of Australian Owlet-nightjars

    Although the Australian Owlet-nightjar Aegotheles cristatus is probably the most abundant and one of the most widespread nocturnal birds in Australia, the majority of information published about its ecology, behaviour and especially reproductive biology is anecdotal. Based on six observed nesting attempts, we report data on breeding season, clutch size, incubation and brooding behaviour, nestling growth rates, fledging success, fledgling behaviour and roost site use for a population breeding near Armidale, New South Wales, during 1996–97....
  • New Zealand Owlet-Nightjar Aegotheles novazelandiae

    The New Zealand owlet-nightjar (Aegotheles novazelandiae) was a large species of owlet-nightjar (family Aegothelidae) formerly endemic to the islands of New Zealand. Fossil remains (which are common in the pellets of the extinct laughing owl) indicate the species was once widespread across both the North Island and the South Island. Despite a small number of reports of small owls being found in the 19th century that may have been New Zealand owlet-nightjars, the species is thought to have become extinct around 1200 AD.
  • Phylogeny of the owlet-nightjars

    The avian family Aegothelidae (Owlet-nightjars) comprises nine extant species and one extinct species, all of which are currently classified in a single genus, Aegotheles. Owlet-nightjars are secretive nocturnal birds of the South Pacific. They are relatively poorly studied and some species are known from only a few specimens...
Photographers & Artists
  • Australian Owlet-Nightjar Aegotheles cristatus


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