The Common Nighthawk is a bird that has been in North America for approximately 400,000 years according to unearthed fossils. This 9.5” bird has a slender, well camouflaged, brownish body with long-pointed wings. It has a noticeable white patch on the throat and near the wing tip. It is in the Goatsucker family of birds. It got this distinction due to an old belief that nighthawks would fly into barns at night to suckle on goats.
The nighthawk summers throughout North America and can be found in rural and urban areas. Nighthawks prefer open areas such as prairies, parks, open forests, grasslands and agricultural fields. Common Nighthawks feed on the wing, meaning they catch flying insects in mid-air while in flight. They can be seen darting through the air, low to the ground or as high as 500’ above the ground. Their food consists of a variety of flying insects such as mosquitoes, beetles, wasps, and moths. The Common Nighthawk finds food by sight and usually feeds during the low light of dawn and dusk. They are able to feed during low light times due to do a structure in their eyes that reflects light back to the retina which improves their night vision.
During mating season the male nighthawk does what is called a “booming” display. He flies above the treetops and suddenly dives toward the ground. Just before hitting the ground he comes out of the dive with wings flexed downward. The rush of air over the wings makes a deep, booming sound. Once mated the Common Nighthawk has a unique nesting habit. The female chooses the nest sight, but neither parent builds a nest. Instead, she lays her eggs on the ground of the forest floor, rocky outcrops and even on gravel flat roofed houses.
Common Nighthawks are usually solitary, but will form large flocks during migration. These flocks are most noticeable when foraging for food. They can be spotted flying above the lights of billboards and streetlights. I recall driving on I-25 south, near Socorro, at dusk in the early fall when I noticed Common Nighthawks darting in and out of my headlights.
The Common Nighthawks population is in steep decline. Pesticide use and loss of suitable nesting habitat are main concerns. Many gravel flat roof houses are being replaced by rubber materials which is not suitable for nesting. Some concerned home owners are placing gravel pads in the corners of rubberized roofs to re-create usable nesting sites.
Mary Schmauss is the owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Albuquerque. A lifelong birder and author of For the Birds: A Month-by-Month Guide to Attracting Birds to your Backyard.