Wild Profile: Meet the common nighthawk

A common nighthawk flying against a green background By Rob Palmer Photography/Shutterstock

The common nighthawk might be best known for borrowing traits from other birds—it’s extraordinary and ordinary at the same time. Like the broad-winged hawk and other raptors, it’s skilled at catching prey mid-air; like the American woodcock, the nighthawk produces a buzzy, nasal “peent” call; and like the ruffed grouse, its wings create a miniature sonic boom as air pops through the feathers.

Common nighthawks are members of the nightjar family: medium sized, nocturnal species. You might see or hear them—their wings produce an odd-sounding “woof”—on summer evenings, especially early in the season, during territorial displays. They dive from hundreds of metres above the earth, then shoot back up again. Nighthawks also soar in order to hunt and catch aerial plankton: billions of tiny, high-flying insects including mites and springtails. A bird will fly with its mouth open, targeting a thick cloud of insects. (Who doesn’t love a good buffet?) Nighthawks also have bristly whiskers around their mouths; this wispy beard functions like a bug net, helping to trap flying insects that don’t fly directly into the bird’s beak.

A female nighthawk doesn’t build a nest. She lays eggs on open ground, or sometimes on flat rooftops. During incubation, she moves the eggs around—into the shade when it’s hot, or out of water that has pooled after a heavy rain. Clever girl! Camouflage helps protect Mom’s future babies from predators; the grey-brown eggs blend in easily with the ground.

Once the nighthawk chicks are born, both parents feed them regurgitated bugs until the babies are ready to fly, about three weeks later. In one night, even a young nighthawk can catch hundreds, sometimes thousands, of bugs. Okay, that’s extraordinary.

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