Our Common Nighthawks and Lessons Learned

At dusk on Sunday evening I was distracted from my weeding – and swatting mosquitos – in the garden behind Evolutionary Abode. It was one of those familiar sounds that have the ability to sweep us away. The periodic raspy wing buzz of that nighthawk’s insect hunt took me back to a young boy’s decision.

Just about this time in July several decades ago, Cousin Ron (then ten) and I (then nine) were in a park near his home in Yakima. In that late evening, a dozen or more nighthawks were darting and cruising after insects a few yards above us.

Because we were young boys, we started tossing rocks just to watch them swerve. Then we hit one. I’m not sure whose rock it was, really, but I will never forget the feeling of watching that striking bird collapse in mid-air for the sake of our play. We walked back to Ron’s house, lost in feeling that we had done something very bad – a feeling I think you never forget – and we swore to never again kill something for no purpose and without a prayer.

Thankfully, we still have nighthawks here in Paradise.

Our common nighthawk is of a group of birds known as “goatsuckers.” As they fed around early European barnyards, legend grew that their huge mouths enabled them to suckle milk from lactating goats, but goatsuckers are just nocturnal insect eaters with large flat heads, tiny bills and cavernous mouths. Ours is also called “bull-bat” because of its bat-like feeding, scooping insects out of the air.

Shortly before dark, they swoop and knife erratically through twilight just above the treetops and house roofs. Their sharp call is a nasal, electric “peeent,” going on for a half-hour or more. Their flight is generally almost silent because of the soft comb-like or fimbriate (fringe-like) leading edge of the primary wing feathers (referred to asflutings” or “fimbriae” in owls). Altering the spacing of primary wing feathers causes the distinctive “buzz” or “hum” or “boom” as they dive for a winged insect. These sounds draw many of us outside in the evening, looking for their source. (On one occasion, two of my favorite homeys were bear hunting in late August, when one of them mistook that raspy sound for a bear’s low grunt – an interesting few minutes, I hear.)

Nighthawks arrive in late May, and will breed anywhere there are insects – in sagebrush and semi-desert shrublands as well as urban and agricultural areas. Courtship rituals also mostly occur at dusk as the male calls, with that electric “cho-ic” or “che-wip,” circles, hovers or soars over his intended nest site, then swoops down, producing a loud hollow “boom,” almost crashing near his chosen mate. After as many as 40 of these dives, he may land, spread his tail, rock his upright body near the female, and puff out his white throat.

Nighthawks seem to sit funny; lengthwise on limbs, and diagonally on wires. Their short, weak legs barely allow them to waddle on the ground, contrasting with their amazing aerial abilities.

The birds nest on open ground – often along rivers or other gravelly stretches. Both the young and adults seem to just disappear into the ground. Two eggs are laid directly on a lightly excavated site with no nest. The female incubates them for 18 to 20 days, then both parents will regurgitate insects for the hatchlings. The young birds will fly at 18 days, feed at 25 days and are on their own in a month.

In eastern Washington, nighthawks are still fairly common, although numbers have decreased in the past 20 years. Pesticides may have reduced the amount of prey available, and some cite predation by crows as a factor.

In late August and September, our common nighthawks will begin their journey to South America. Some will winter over clear down into the grasslands of northern Argentina.

In keeping with the wishes of the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association’s Science Education Committee, I include the following. Common nighthawk’s scientific name is Chordeiles minor. It is a mottled, somewhat barred dark brown and gray bird, about nine inches long, with a broad-head and a wingspan of nearly two feet. Identifying traits include its white chin and wing patches, a slightly forked tail, and long pointed wings with a sharp distinctive falcon-like elbow (thus night”hawk”).

Find out more from “The Birder’s Handbook” by Paul R. Ehrlich, David S. Dobkin and Darryl Wheye, or another field guide. Online, I always start with the Cornell Lab site at http://www.allaboutbirds.org. You will find abundant opportunities on the web to hear the hums and booms and other vocalizations of our nighthawks – most any search engine will get you there.

Be grateful; our common nighthawks are great insect eaters – an analysis of one bird’s stomach turned up more than 500 mosquitoes in a single day of feeding, while another had more than 2,100 flying ants in its gut.

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized

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