Bird Watcher's General Store

Common Nighthawks
06/11/21


A new yard bird:

A new “yard bird” is simply a bird species that you spot in your yard for the very first time. It’s different than seeing a “life bird,” which is spotting a bird you have never seen before in your life. (Pretty complicated stuff, eh?) Seeing a new yard bird can be exciting (at least it is for those folks who find such things exciting). That’s exactly what happened to me yesterday and all the excitement took place right in front of a couple of bewildered friends who were visiting from New Hampshire. And no, in case you were wondering, the exciting new bird wasn’t a bluebird. Let’s not get carried away.

Remember when having company wasn’t a big deal? But ever since the pandemic lockdown, when we were all afraid to even wave to people from the window, the idea of having anyone visit was unthinkable. Well, yesterday I finally felt brave enough to peel the seals off the front door and let some friends inside. After exchanging medical charts and vaccine histories, we all went out on the back deck for lunch. I was just about to sit down when I looked up and saw a Common Nighthawk fly overhead. The last time I saw a nighthawk was 38 years ago. (Yes, I actually remember the exact number of years and I’m not ashamed to admit it.) That particular bird was at Fort Hill, but this time it was in my own yard, so I understandably began yelling like a crazy person. Our NH friends were both confused and startled, as neither of them had ever heard of a nighthawk or had a clue why seeing one made me act like I had just won the Showcase Showdown. I tried to explain myself, but they just seemed frightened and more confused.

Inaccurate bird names have been a regular theme lately and here comes yet another one. On Cape Cod, and in many locations, the Common Nighthawk is not at all “common.” They also aren’t hawks and aren’t often active late at night. Nighthawks actually belong to a family of birds known as nightjars or goatsuckers (really). They are related to, and look very much like, Whip-poor-wills, which also have a strange name, but at least that name makes sense…even with all the hyphens.

Slightly smaller than Blue Jays, but with much longer wings, nighthawks spend their days sitting on bare ground or on exposed branches. They depend on their natural camouflage (a mixture of white, gray, tan and brown) to keep hidden and safe. If you were to find one on the ground (although you probably won’t), you would think it looks basically like a brown lump with a tail. But once the sun starts to set and these birds take to the air, everything changes. Swooping through the fading light like giant swallows or bats, nighthawks are both conspicuous and fascinating to watch. They also have white wing-patches and the males produce a loud “beezrh” call that makes their presence known, even in the dim light. Like other nightjars (so named because their evening call is “jarring”), nighthawks are insect eaters, scooping up bugs with their ridiculously huge mouths. They’ll continue to hunt for an hour or so, before taking a break when things become too dark. Since they come out at dusk, perhaps a better name for nighthawks would be “duskhawks”…except they aren’t hawks either. Never mind.

The population of many bird species took a hit when man-made dwellings began to dominate the landscape, but nighthawks found civilization to be to their advantage. These ground-nesting birds quickly substituted gravel-covered roofs for terra firma. Nesting “up on the roof” had the distinct advantage of being fairly predator-free, while also being closer to the flying insects that were attracted to the big city lights. Years ago I wrote a column about watching nighthawks grab insects around the lights at Fenway Park, but then something not good happened. Because of the weight, gravel roofs have lost favor in recent years and thus nighthawks have lost valuable breeding sites. Now they hate the cities just like everyone else.

The breeding area of the Common Nighthawk is massive, covering nearly all of North America. But they aren’t with us for very long. One of the last birds to arrive in the spring and the first to leave after the breeding season, nighthawks can sometimes be seen migrating south in large swooping flocks. Unfortunately, as is the case with many insectivores, their population is now in decline. Here in Massachusetts nighthawks were once found breeding in scattered pockets around the state, but recent surveys have indicated that those breeding populations are no more. The reasons for the decline aren’t totally understood, but uncontrolled pets (nighthawks are ground nesters), the use of pesticides (nighthawks are bug eaters) and our love of non-native plants (which don’t benefit insects) are the top three suspects.

The bird’s rarity and my serendipitous sighting made seeing a nighthawk fly through my very own backyard an exciting moment indeed. My friends, on the other hand, are still confused, but they’ll get over it. And in case you wanted to know (but were afraid to ask), the reason why nighthawks, aka, nightjars are also called “goatsuckers” is because in ancient times shepherds thought the birds drank milk from their goats. No offense, shepherds, but that is just stupid. Birds don’t drink milk, because all birds are lactose intolerant…well, all of them except for maybe cowbirds.




Artwork by Catherine Clark


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