Common Nighthawk

Common Nighthawk
Photo by: 
Paul Ruehle

When I was little I read the Peter Cottontail books and in one, Peter was terrified by a bird that swooped down and made a booming noise right over his head. At first he thought it was a hawk trying to eat him. Later he learned that he didn’t need to be afraid, because the bird was not a real hawk, it was a nighthawk. This was my first introduction to the Common Nighthawk ( Chordeiles minor ). The name Nighthawk is misleading because they are not related to hawks, but are close cousins to Whip-or-wills.

Their nasal peent call is commonly heard on late spring and summer evenings over well lit (insect rich) areas. I love to watch the way they flit through the sky then suddenly change direction to catch an insect in their wide, gaping mouth. They consume large quantities of flying insects including mosquitos.

Nighthawks will also dive straight for the ground and then pull out at the last second. The air rushing through their feathers creates the booming sound that gave Peter Cottontail such a fright. This is done by the males as part of their courtship.

Their eggs are laid on leaves on the forest floor, in sand, abandoned robin’s nests or in the gravel of flat roofs in the city. Common Nighthawks are summer residents of most of the United States and Canada. During the winter they range throughout South America to Argentina.

Nighthawks are pretty easy to pick out while in the sky; they are larger (9.5 inches) birds with long, pointy wings that have a wide, white bar near the tip. It also helps that they are constantly calling, “peent ... peent ... peent.” Their black, grey, brown, and tan mottled feathers easily blend in with a pile of leaves or the bark of a tree making them nearly impossible to find while at rest.

On your next evening run to the grocery store, listen for the “peent” and then watch the skies for the hawk that’s not really a hawk!

By Ruth Simmons

Summer 2005