Keep Your Eyes Open For Common Nighthawks

The common nighthawk is not a hawk. Hawks are in the Falco and Accipiter families. Nighthawks and nightjars are in the family Caprimulgidae. This and the Whip-poor-will are the only two members in this family that are found in this region.

Europeans thought that nighthawks were in the goatsucker family. That was a result of a misconception they had that those birds drank goat’s milk. The myth about this family goes like this. Back in Aristotle’s time, it was believed that nighthawks sucked on goats’ udders. Those ideas were wrong. By the way, we don’t have any goatsuckers in this area.

The common nighthawk acts like a flycatcher, but it’s not in the flycatcher family. In order to catch flying insects easily, our bird has a small bill and large mouth. Other birds perch, but ours has weak legs and feel, so it crouches.

How did it get its name? One source states that it hangs out on fence posts in the daytime. Another says it feeds at dusk, in the night, and in the day. It sounds to me like it is feeding all the time. When does it sleep? Actually, most of its activity is before sunrise and after sunset. During the day, especially in the south, it sits on top of fence posts. In migration, flocks of them travel in the summer evenings. It nests on the old-fashioned, tarred and graveled roofs.

Its nutrition comes from flying insects. Ornithologists have found 50 species in one of its stomachs. Make a guess as to which was the most prevalent species found in one bird. No, it wasn’t mosquitoes; it was flying ants, with a count of 2,175 individuals. That must have been in the south. I have never seen a flying ant up here. That’s OK with me. Like the flycatcher, the nighthawk feeds while flying – either way up in the air or near the earth. If you don’t actually see the bird, you might hear a call that resembles an insect – loud and buzzy.

Near Boston, Mass., birders formed the Brookline Bird Club exactly 100 years ago. In August of this year, club members donned their binoculars to search for this bird. It migrates through Massachusetts from mid-August to mid-September. In the 1970s, one birder in Brookline counted about 600 of these birds flying over the town in three weeks. This trip is from Canada to Central America. The common nighthawk is the last one to return in the spring and the first to head back in autumn.

As it hunts, it emits a loud sound that is similar to that of an insect. Also, the male, during courtship at dusk, it will call and either circle, hover, or soar above a possible nest site. Then, it produces a loud boom with its wings and almost crashes near its mate. It produces that booming sound by vibrating its primary wing feathers. After that, it will land near the observing female, puff out its throat, calls and shows off its white throat. This activity will continue during the whole nesting period.

The young is fed regurgitated food from the parents. After about 25 days, they’re on their own.

The nighthawk used to nest on flat, tarred and gravel rooftops in cities. But as roofs of many buildings are converted to other substances, they are no longer as appealing to this species.

More often, it lays its eggs on the ground in open fields or on patches of gravel. However, stumps, abandoned robin’s nests, and the gravel rooftops are also used. Two, off-white to olive eggs are speckled with grayish markings.

In fall migration, it travels with others in flocks. It was on the Blue List from 1975 to 1986. It is a real treat to see one. Keep your eyes open for its movement.