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The Nighthawk

Steve Bryant, Area Biologist, Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries

The nighthawk is a mysterious and often misunderstood bird that is referred to by a variety of misleading names such as “goatsucker,” “bull bat,” “night jar,” and “mosquito hawk.” The 12-inch wing span, agile flying and its appearance in association with darkness account for the title bull bat.

Legend is entwined with the bird’s scientific labeling. The nighthawk is classified in the order Caprimulgiformes and family Caprimulgidae, which is literally translated as “goat milkers” or “goat suckers.” The origin of this misnomer is traced back to ancient times when superstitious goat herders observed nighthawks flying above their goats in the evening with their large mouths agape. The shepherds initiated the myth that these large-mouthed birds where sucking milk from the goats. Actually, the nighthawks were feeding on insects that had been flushed from the ground into the air by the goats’ movements.

In fact, the common name nighthawk is also a misnomer, since this bird is not at all related to the common hawks. It has no large strong beak or talons that are common to true hawks. In reality, the nighthawk is more closely related to swifts or flycatchers, possessing a tiny beak and small weak feet. It feeds solely on flying insects such as mosquitoes, flying ants, beetles, or moths, taking them while in flight and swallowing them whole. Observation by researchers has documented stomachs from nighthawks containing over 500 mosquitoes.

The scientific name contains the genus Chordeiles, which is derived from two Greek words, chorde, meaning a stringed instrument and deile, meaning evening. This is believed to be in reference to the sound that the bird makes when it exhibits a death-defying dive from several hundred feet in the air, then abruptly flares its wings, and gracefully glides upward, just before striking the ground. The rush of air through the feathers creates a loud booming sound compared to the lowest note attainable on a stringed instrument.

The nighthawk’s spectacular aerial acrobatics, as it swoops, glides, and dives for flying insects, can inspire long-lived memories of an encounter with this unusual bird. Nighthawks are only about 10 inches in length but appear larger due to their long wings that are reminiscent of boomerangs with a deep arch in the middle. A large white patch located about midway between the bend and the end of the wings is readily observed when the bird is in flight.

 

The nighthawk’s plumage is dark and drab, and serves as camouflage when roosting and nesting. They are rarely seen perching, but when they do, they have the unusual trait of standing lengthwise on a limb. The extra large mouth is fringed with stiff bristles to aid in capturing flying insects, and possesses a very small, weak beak. The feet and legs are small and weak and are used primarily for perching or standing, and occasionally for walking or scratching.

The common nighthawk breeds in open country in every state except Hawaii, but is not commonly observed in most of Alabama. The nighthawk builds no nest to raise its young. A location is chosen in ground that has been burned over, on a large rock, in gravel, especially on rooftops of buildings in cities, or occasionally in leaves of a forest floor. Only two eggs are laid, which are incubated for 19 days. The young are born naked and helpless and are fed for 21 days until they fledge.

Nighthawks are active during dusk and dawn or in association with lighted areas at night. Athletic fields in use after dark are magnets for an abundance of flying insects that create prime feeding locations for nighthawks. Resident nighthawks may be seen slicing through the air in the summer or in the fall as they pass through on their migration route to winter in South America from Brazil south to Argentina.


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