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Common Nighthawk

Photo by Stan Tekiela

by Stan Tekiela
© NatureSmart

October 17, 2022

In nature, if there is a niche, there is no doubt it will be filled. And it is usually filled with the most interesting of critter. This is the pattern that has made nature so incredibly diverse over millions of years. So, it shouldn’t be any surprise that some birds are not like others and in this week’s column I wanted to look at a very unique bird that has filled an interesting niche.

The Common Nighthawk (Chordeiles minor) is the most common and widespread of the three species of nighthawk found in America. They are closely related to Whip-poor-wills which might be slightly more known than the nighthawk. But it wouldn’t surprise me right now if you hadn’t heard of either of these birds.

Its Genus name Chordeiles is Greek and translates to “dancing in the evening” and perfectly describes the nighthawks erratic flight at dusk each evening, about 20 minutes after the sunset, as it hunts for flying insects. And this erratic flight combined with a loud peenting call is just about the only thing that most people know or experience with this bird.

These birds have an exclusive insect diet, so they are called an insectivore. When perched they superficially look like a thin owl species that is leaning forward. Like owls they have a small beak. However, when they open their mouths to catch a bug in flight, it has a huge opening, called a gape. They don’t use their beak to catch insects, so it makes sense that their beak is small, and their mouth is large.

The name “nighthawk” was first recorded in the King James Version in 1611 and was originally used for a European nighthawk and was later used in America in 1778 for our Common Nighthawk and the name stuck. Our Common Nighthawk is NOT very common but can be found in nearly every state and much of Canada. However, just because it is widespread doesn’t translate to a bird that is well known and familiar. By nature, this bird is crepuscular. This means it is active only in the dusk of the evening after the sun has set but before it gets dark and again in the morning just as it’s getting light. And this is the reason why most people don’t know of this bird. It has filled the niche of hunting at the shoulders of the daylight.

The Common Nighthawk is about 9 to 10 inches long or about the same size as an American Robin. So, they are not huge birds, but they do have very long wings, approximately 24 inches (2 feet). Compared to only 15 to 17 inches for the American Robin. The extra-long wings should be a clue to how important flight is for this aerial hunter. They fly with rapid wingbeats and since they are catching insects inflight, they need to be fast and also agile enough to turn quickly and snatch a bug from the air.  

I was so happy when a reader of this column contacted me about a Common Nighthawk nesting on a patch of gravel in their yard. When I first arrived, I was shocked to learn the bird was in the front yard. I just assumed it would be more hidden or tucked away in a backyard situation, but nope, it was right out front. These birds depend upon camouflage to roost all day long without being disturbed so it wasn’t a surprise that it took me a few seconds to spot the nighthawk sitting motionless in the rocks when I first arrived.

I planned for my arrival to be about an hour before sunset so I could see the bird on the nest and also see it leave the nest after sunset to go out hunting. The plan worked out well. I was able to capture some images of the bird on the nest and shortly after sunset the bird took off which revealed the egg it was sitting upon.

Another amazing aspect of this bird is, they are able to capture enough insects in just an hour or two that will last them for the next day. This kind of efficiency is needed in a species that fills the niche of hunting in the evening just after sunset. Filling an open niche is what Mother Nature does best and the Common Nighthawk is a fabulous example. Until next time…

Stan Tekiela is an author / naturalist and wildlife photographer who travels the U.S. to study and capture images of wildlife. He can be followed on Instagram.com, facebook.com and twitter.com. He can be contacted via his web page at naturesmart.com


The nationally syndicated NatureSmart Column appears in over 25 cities spanning 7 states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania. It is a bi-weekly column circulated to over 750,000 readers.

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