The Common Nighthawk's erratic, acrobatic flight style gives the bird its folk name of “bullbat.” The name “nighthawk” is misleading, since the bird is neither strictly nocturnal nor closely related to hawks. Like the Eastern Whip-poor-will and Chuck-will's widow, it's a member of the Caprimulgidae family, a group also known as nightjars.
Like other nightjars, Common Nighthawks are cryptically colored and difficult to spot while roosting quietly on a tree branch or fence post during the day.
Common Nighthawks have one of the longest migration routes of all North American birds, and move early, beginning to travel south in August. They form large flocks during migration; their sharp, electric peent call is often the first sign that they're passing overhead.
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Common Nighthawks eat many kinds of flying insects, including mosquitoes, moths, and grasshoppers. Their wide, bristle-lined mouths are adapted to scoop insects from the air, and long tails and long, pointed wings allow for acrobatic maneuvering to pursue prey. Nighthawks can most often be seen hunting on the wing at dawn and dusk, but they occasionally forage during the day in overcast weather.
Common Nighthawks take advantage of the clouds of insects attracted to streetlamps, stadium lights, and other bright lights, and often swoop around these artificial light sources. They also feed over fields and ponds.
This species lays its eggs directly on the ground, usually on sand, dirt, gravel, or bare rock. In cities, Common Nighthawks often nest on flat gravel roofs. Unfortunately, urban populations of crows increasingly target these city nighthawks, and eat their eggs.
A male nighthawk courts a female by circling and hovering high in the air while calling repeatedly; then he plunges into a steep dive. The air passing through the bird's primary wing feathers creates a loud rushing or "booming" sound at bottom of its dive. Male nighthawks also use this display to establish and protect territory.
The female Common Nighthawk performs all incubation duties, but will leave the nest to feed. Both parents care for young, feeding them regurgitated insects.
Fighting for Nighthawks
Populations of Common Nighthawk have plunged, with a cumulative decline of 61 percent between 1966 and 2014, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. The 2014 State of the Birds Report lists Common Nighthawk as a common bird in steep decline.
In early 2016, we joined with beekeepers, farmers, and public interest groups in filing a lawsuit alleging insufficient federal regulation of neonicotinoids, an insecticide widely used as a seed coating. A 2013 study by ABC found that these “neonics” are toxic to birds and invertebrates, even in small quantities, and that they persist in soils for months and even years.
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