Regularly mistaken for a large bat or swallow, the common nighthawk is an acrobatic flier and one of the easiest birds to recognize in flight because of its bold wing bar. Unfortunately, rapid decline in recent years has made these birds less "common" than they once were.
Common Nighthawk, Bullbat
- Bill: Tiny, dark, hooked
- Size: 9 inches long with 23-inch wingspan, large eyes
- Colors: Brown, white, black, buff, gray
- Markings: Dimorphic species. Males have heavily mottled brown and gray or black upperparts contrasting with a white throat and thin buff eye ring. Dark primary wing feathers are crossed by a prominent white bar, and a conspicuous white feather is found at the front of the wings. The tail has a thick white band. Underparts are buff or white with heavy dark barring. Females are similar but lack the tail band and have buff rather than white wing bars and throat. Both genders have dark legs and feet.
Habitat and Migration:
Common nighthawks are widespread throughout North America in relatively dry, open country such as fields or agricultural areas, though they have also adapted to towns and open forests. Their summer range extends through Canada but stops short of extreme northern regions, and continues south through the continental United States and central Mexico. Summer populations are absent in southern California and southwestern Arizona. In winter, these birds migrate to northern and central South America as far as Brazil and northern Argentina. Year-round common nighthawk populations can be found on many Caribbean islands.
These can be gregarious birds in flight with a raspy, nasal "peeet" or "peeent" call. Their call has a single syllable but may be repeated frequently.
Common nighthawks are solitary or found in small groups, though larger flocks may assemble for fall migration. They are most active in the evening and their acrobatic but erratic flight is easily recognized. During the day, they roost on tree branches, snags, fence posts or gravel roofs with their mottled plumage providing excellent camouflage. They feed mostly in flight and also drink in flight by scooping water when flying over rivers, lakes or streams.
Males common nighthawks attract their mates with a steep power dive courtship display that ends in a "boom" made through their primary wing feathers. These are monogamous birds and a mated pair will raise 1-2 broods of 2 eggs each annually, with multiple broods most common in southern populations. Once the eggs are laid, the female parent incubates the brood for 19-20 days, and both parents will feed the hatchlings for 21 days until the young birds are ready to leave the nest.
Attracting Common Nighthawks:
Despite their name, these nocturnal birds are not commonly found in backyards. Birders who avoid pesticide use or moth traps may attract feeding common nighthawks, however, and they may choose to roost in snags or on fence posts. Check for feeding birds on summer evenings near large lights that attract flying insects. Roosting birds can be difficult to find, but lucky birders may be able to approach a roosting common nighthawk quite closely without disturbing or stressing the bird.
- Lesser Nighthawk (Chordeiles acutipennis)
- Antillean Nighthawk (Chordeiles gundlachii)
- Common Pauraque (Nyctidromus albicollis)
- Whip-Poor-Will (Caprimulgus vociferus)
Photo – Common Nighthawk Roosting © Melissa Mayntz
Photo – Common Nighthawk in Flight © Ian Montgomery, birdway.com.au