Common Nighthawk

by Pat Jaquith
pat@westvalleynaturalists.org

Common Nighthawks are unobtrusive birds that don’t demand much attention but whose presence makes the environment a little more people-friendly. We may hear them without ever seeing them. They have evolved to hide from predators, and that may be what makes them so unknown to us.

Common Nighthawk 6.22.20

Look carefully: it is well-disguised to blend in with its surroundings. No big nest for this bird! They just select a spot on the ground to lay their eggs and raise their young. No flashy feathers! Their colors blend perfectly into the environment.
I walked along this flat, open ledge outcrop watching my footing and looking at flowers when suddenly three or four Killdeer-sized birds sounded alarm calls, circled around me, and started “booming“. Unwittingly I had come too close to a nest for their comfort level. Males do this in mating displays; I learned they use it to drive intruders away, too! It was clear that I was unwelcome! I knew I’d better leave, but only by chance spotted the bird they were protecting so I knew which direction to head. I earned 15 booms before I got far enough away.

Common Nighthawk 6.22.20 photo edited for clarity

Common Nighthawks, once called Goatsuckers, were thought to sneak into goat pens at night and drink goats’ milk. Had those people been able to see the tiny beak, they might not have spread that milk-stealing rumor! We now know they “hawk” insects mostly at dusk and dawn by circling with beaks open, high in the sky over fields, wetlands (Smith Lake and West Valley potholes!) or other places like ball fields or city lights where insects gather. Their soft “peent, peent, peent” vocalization is as unobtrusive as their coloration. In cities they nest on flat rooftops. When they have nestlings to feed, they are out sweeping up insects at ‘most any hour of the day. We can only imagine how many mosquitoes, midges, flies, and moths it takes to satisfy growing youngsters!

Common Nighthawk 6.13.16

I was walking on an open hilltop when this Nighthawk flew up and landed on a tree branch. This is typical of their posture on in a tree. They have very short legs and toes which probably makes perpendicular perching difficult. From a distance, it really looked like a bump on a log!
Nighthawks have long bristles around their beak (rictal bristles) that until recently were thought to help funnel insects into their open beaks. Researchers have learned that the bristles have a sensory function and most likely serve to assist in flight.
Nighthawks are migratory following their food source. They arrive here around the end of May and leave in September. Their numbers are in steep decline. Their greatest threats are the use of pesticides that reduce mosquito and other flying insect populations and habitat loss.

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