Bird of the Year
Introduction by Jeffrey A. Gordon, ABA President
Let’s face it, there are no Edward Hopper paintings or Tom Waits albums or venerable roots-rock combos named after cormorants or gnatcatchers. But nighthawks, dynamic and mysterious, inevitably capture the attention as they dive and swoop over open country or high above the rooftops of even our largest cities. Who among us, birder or not, hasn’t marveled at a darting, flickering swarm of these long-winged wonders hunting moths under the lights of a late-season baseball game?
Nighthawks keep a foot in two very different realms. They share the mottled camouflage and retiring daytime habits of their goatsucker brethren, but unlike the more reclusive nightjars, nighthawks also venture forth into the open, forsaking the security of the tangled vegetation so many of their kin can hardly bring themselves to leave. Nighthawks are full of contradiction: shy at times and dramatically demonstrative at others, often silent and often louder than any other creature of the evening, familiar, exotic, and strange. The range of dualities they encapsulate makes nighthawks, I believe, an ideal bridge between the “surface” attraction of the birds that nearly everyone rightly knows and holds dear – the robins and the geese and the doves – and that weirder, richer mosaic that has captured the hearts and mind and imaginations of those of us who bird.
Nighthawks can open your eyes to that whole other world, a chiaroscuro realm that includes the urban and the pristine, the modest and the flamboyant. This spring, when the flood tide of warblers and shorebirds has passed and the evenings grow longer, or whenever the species graces your region, go out and reacquaint yourself with the Common Nighthawk. And better still, bring along some not-yet-birder friends or just grab the attention of some passersby. Show them the evening dance of the nighthawks, something wonderful that they likely until now have missed. And welcome them to a new world, one that’s both more interesting and mysterious.
Fun Facts About Common Nighthawks:
- Nighthawks roost not across their perches but parallel to them. They roost on tree branches, fences, or the ground.
- In many parts of North America, Common Nighthawks are seen in greatest numbers during fall migration, in August and September. Spring migration peaks in most places between mid-May and mid-June. You can learn more about nighthawk ranges and seasonal movements at eBird.org.
- Watch for nighthawks over ponds and fields. You may see them feeding around bright lights.
- Common Nighthawks spend the northern winter in Central and South America.
- The display flights of male Common Nighthawks end with a distinctive “boom” at the bottom of their dive – a loud sound produced by air rushing through the nighthawk’s wing feathers. The dives can be directed at females and at territorial intruders, including people. (AllAboutBirds.org)
- In cities, Common Nighthawks may nest on gravel roof-tops. Nighthawks don’t build nests, but lay their camouflaged eggs directly onto the gravel. Nighthawks also nest on gravel bars, rocky outcroppings, and sand dunes, or in forest clearings and sparsely vegetated grasslands.
- Female Common Nighthawks perform all of the incubation duties, but do leave the nest to feed.
- Nighthawk chicks hatch after 18-20 days and are fed regurgitated insects by both the female and the male.
- Most authorities recognize nine subspecies of Common Nighthawk, differing in plumage colors and sizel eight of those subspecies occur in the ABA Area. You can read about the plumages of Common Nighthawks in The Birds of North America online.
The name “nighthawk” refers to the nocturnal or crepuscular habits of the bird and its long-winged, falcon-like shape. The name of the genus Chordeiles combines two Greek elements meaning “musical chord at dusk,” and the species epithet minor is a comparison with the Common Nighthawk’s larger relative, the European Nightjar. For nearly a century, the name “nighthawk” was applied indiscriminately to what we now know as the Common Nighthawk and to the Eastern Whippoorwill; not until Alexander Wilson carefully distinguished the two in his American Ornithology was it known for certain that those birds represented two different species. Among the colloquial names used for the Common Nighthawk over the years and listed by Bent are bullbat, Virginia bat, pisk, will-o’wisp, and burnt land bird. (Rick Wright)
- Loud and distinctive buzz peent is often heard before the bird is seen.
- Most often observed in the morning or evening while feeding on the wing. The flight habit is often described as “erratic” and “bat-like,” but there is also a powerful grace to the species’ direct flight.
- Most conspicuous mark in flight is the white patch across the outer wing; that patch may be duller or buffy in some females.
- White throat patch, often more prominent on the male, is easily seen in flight.
- Males have a white bar across the tail, which is medium long and notched.
- The bill is very small, but the mouth is very wide for capturing insects in flight.
- On roosting birds, note the barred underparts. The general color tone varies widely between subspecies.
Though one of the most well-known and most frequently seen of the nightjars, the Common Nighthawk remains poorly understood. We know especially little about the species on its wintering grounds. Declining in numbers in parts of its range, the Common Nighthawk is now listed as threatened in Canada and is a species of special concern in several eastern states of the US. What are the causes? Pesticides? Habitat loss? Competition? Predation?
How we can help the Common Nighthawk:
- Avoid pesticides that kill flying insects that Common Nighthawks might eat, and support efforts to keep rivers, lakes, and pond free of pesticides. (Audubon)
- Provide habitat for flying insects.
- Provide gravel roofing or gravel nest patches on flat roofs. (Project Nighthawk – NH Audubon)
- Report Common Nighthawk sightings to eBird, and participate in events such as Project FeederWatch, Great Backyard Bird Count, and the Christmas Bird Count. Reports of this species at any season can be very helpful to our understanding of Common Nighthawks’ breeding, migrations, and wintering.
- Get outside. And in the process, check out all the other birds that share the world with us.
- Get involved. Join your local bird club. Volunteer with local conservation organizations.
- Go to www.aba.org/join to learn how to get involved in the American Birding Association.
- What type of projects can you think of to benefit The Common Nighthawk? Email us at BoY@ABA.org
Bird of the Year Events for 2013:
- January – Video Launch, followed by Common Nighthawk artwork by Andrew Guttenberg featured on the cover of Birding. Stickers included!
- February – Show us how you used your Common Nighthawk stickers.
- March – Multimedia Art Contest Announcement – start creating your Common Nighthawk masterpieces!
- May 24-27 – Common Nighthawk Weekend #1. Introduce a friend to the joy of birding by going out in search of Common Nighthawks.
- August 30-Sept 2 – Common Nighthawk Weekend #2. Introduce a friend the joy of birding by going out in search of Common Nighthawks.
- September – Launch of Common Nighthawk Art Contest website.
- October – Blog Carnival.
- October 31 - Multimedia Art Contest Submission Deadline.
- November – Multimedia Art Contest judging and winners announced.
Other interesting links:
- Common Nighthawk Sound Recordings – Xeno-Canto
- Common Nighthawk Audio & Video Recordings – Macaulay Library
- Common Nighthawk Feathers – The Feather Atlas
- Common Nighthawk Wings – Slater Museum
- Common Nighthawk profile at AllAboutBirds.com
- Common Nighthawk profile at The Birds of North America
- Common Nighthawk Profile at National Geographic
- Common Nighthawk, Uncommon Sound 2 minute audio clip by BirdNote
- Roosting Common Nighthawk at 10000Birds.com
- Common Nighthawk Medical Exam video at BirdChick.com
- Voices: Common Nighthawk – video by Cornell Lab of Ornithology
- Common Nighthawk Dive Bomb – video by smanby
- Looking at a Nighthawk by Julie Zickefoose
- Common Nighthawk – Photo Study at NemesisBird.com
- Common Nighthawk Nest at NemesisBird.com
- Common Nighthawk Migration Numbers at Stokes Birding Blog
- Common Nighthawk at The Eyrie by Alexandria Simpson with photography from Bill Schmoker
- Things That Go Burp in the Night by Rick Wright at The Biodiversity Heritage Library blog
- Rehabbing Nighthawks by Laura Erickson
- On-going series on the Common Nighthawk by Rick Wright
- Interview with ABA 2013 BoY Artist Andrew Guttenberg Video by Jeff Gordon
- Have you written or blogged about the Common Nighthawk? Send us your links!