Meet The Great Eared Nightjar, The Dragon-Like Bird Straight Out Of A Fantasy Film

Published April 20, 2023
Updated April 24, 2023

One of the most unique birds found in India and Southeast Asia, the great eared nightjar is known for its distinctive ear-tufts — and its stunning ability to avoid predators.

Great Eared Nightjar

World Birds/TwitterThe great eared nightjar looks like a dragon and has a variety of “superpowers.”

The forests of Asia hold many wonders found nowhere else on planet Earth. But one of the most delightful beasts inhabiting places like Thailand and Vietnam is the great eared nightjar.

A tiny bird with a surprisingly big mouth, the great eared nightjar seems like something out of a fantasy book. It’s often compared to a baby dragon and looks like a cross between an owl, hawk, and some kind of alien.

Though this curious bird is very real, it’s definitely developed some impressive “superpowers” to help it survive in the wild. Elusive, nocturnal, and quick, the great eared nightjar is also a master of disguise.

What Is A Great Eared Nightjar?

First described in 1831 by the Irish zoologist Nicholas Aylward Vigors, great eared nightjars (Lyncornis macrotis) got their name for a very simple reason. Critter Science writes that they were observed flying at night (night) and that many found their unique, haunting call to be jarring (jar).

Though their birdsong may unsettle some (it sounds a bit like a whistle, and makes a distinctive tsiik sound followed by ba-haaww), the great eared nightjar is hardly a frightening sight to behold. Weighing just over five ounces, this small bird has a wingspan of sixteen inches and a long tail.

Drawing Of Great Eared Nightjar

Public DomainA drawing of a great eared nightjar from 1801.

Nightjars are found all over the world. Cosmos Magazine reports that variations of these birds can be found in Europe, Asia, Australasia, and the Americas. But great eared nightjars roam only in Southeast Asia. They live in places like Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, parts of India, and the Philippines.

No matter where they live, the birds face predators like foxes, dogs, crows, owls, and snakes. And they’ve developed some impressive ways to survive.

The Power Of Camouflage And Night Vision

The great eared nightjar has a number of superpowers that allows it to evade detection from predators. One is its night vision.

Great Eared Nightjar At Night

Dilip C Gupta/Macaulay LibraryThe great eared nightjar is equipped with large eyes which help it see in the darkness.

Unsurprisingly, the nightjar often flies at night — though it is also active during dawn and dusk — and has specialized eyes to help it see in the darkness. As Australian Geographic writes, the bird’s eyes contain a layer of tissue called tapetum lucidum which is also found in animals like cats and crocodiles. It allows night vision by reflecting light back through the retina.

By flying at night, the bird can avoid predators who only hunt during the day. But that’s not the only inventive survival technique it has at its disposal.

The great eared nightjar is also skilled at hiding in plain sight — which is fortunate because these small birds have nests on the ground. They lay one egg at a time and guard it for about four weeks. During that time, nightjars depend on their ability to blend in with their surroundings.

Nightjar Nesting On The Ground

Project NightjarA nightjar nesting on the ground. Its strategic camouflage helps it to blend in with its surroundings.

“Individual birds consistently sit in places that enhance their own unique markings, both within a habitat and at a fine scale with regards to specific background sites,” Martin Stevens, the lead researcher for Project Nightjar, told Cosmos Magazine. “It could be that somehow they ‘know’ what they look like and act accordingly. They may look at themselves, their eggs and the background and judge whether it’s a good place to nest, or learn over time about what kinds of places their eggs escape being eaten.”

Great eared nightjars also avoid predators by being constantly on the move. Aside from nesting, they spend most of their time in flight. They catch prey — like moths and beetles — while flying, and even drink while flying. As Critter Science notes, the birds fly over lakes and ponds to scoop up water.

These dragon-like birds may not have dragon-like powers, but they have developed a number of ways like these to increase their chance of survival. And perhaps it’s their elusiveness, intelligence, and strange appearance that’s inspired nightjar legends all over the world.

The Eerie Legends About The Nightjar

Great Eared Nightjar Mouth

TwitterOne of the creepiest things about the great eared nightjar might be its gaping mouth, but these birds are harmless.

As nocturnal creatures with an otherworldly birdsong and a haunting black gaze, nightjars around the world have inspired some seriously creepy legends. In Indonesia, for example, the satanic nightjar (Eurostopodus diabolicus) has such an eerie call that Australian Geographic reports some have compared it to the sound of plucking out someone’s eyes.

In Europe, similar legends have sprung up about nightjars. The Maine Nightjar Monitoring Project notes that ancient Greeks falsely believed that nightjars drank milk right out of the udders of goats, which led to their nickname “goatsucker.” European poets in the 18th and 19th centuries also called them “lich fowle” or “corpse bird” because of their association with death.

Goatsucker

Public DomainAn 18th-century drawing of a nightjar described as a “goatsucker.”

But though nightjars are most comfortable flying in the dead of night — and though their eerie call can be bone-chilling — these birds are totally harmless for humans. They’re more interested in eating bugs and protecting their eggs from predators than ushering in death.

In fact, it’s probably humans that are more interested in nightjars than the other way around. Great eared nightjars are admired worldwide for their weird, dragon-like look, gaping mouths, and ability to disappear into their surroundings.

So next time you’re in Southeast Asia, scan the skies — and the ground — for the great earned nightjar. You’re in for a treat if you can spot one of these strange-looking birds — but given their elusive nature, you may only be able to hear their haunting call.


After reading about the great eared nightjar, learn about the blue-ringed octopus, one of the ocean’s most adorable — and deadly — creatures. Or, brighten your day with this photo collection of delightful baby animals.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a double degree in American History and French.