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When Is a Hawk Not a Hawk?

Updated on April 6, 2013
Mystery Bird
Mystery Bird | Source

I'll Give You Some Hints:

  • When it has a tiny beak, but a very big mouth.
  • When it is virtually invisible in its nest.
  • When headlights reveal its ruby red eyes, which are ideally adapted for dim light conditions.
  • When, to impress its mate it does a nose dive straight down, stopping only a few feet from the ground and suddenly opens its wings, which produces a loud ‘boom’!
  • When it heads south in mid-July flying almost 7,000 miles to winter in Argentina.

Give Up? Read on for the answer to this jarring riddle.

Common Nighthawk Eggs

Common Nighthawk Eggs blend in well with their surroundings.
Common Nighthawk Eggs blend in well with their surroundings. | Source

And the Answer Is...

It's a Common Nighthawk, and it isn't a hawk at all, but a Nightjar!

These 10” jay-sized birds have plumage that is so well camouflaged they are literally undetectable when resting or nesting on the ground among dry grass and dead leaves, or on gravel. The brown and gray mottled camouflage isn't just for the adults. It starts with the eggs, which totally blend in with their background. They are most often off-white covered with grayish brown marks that resemble random scrawling or blotching.

Common Nighthawk  (Chordeiles minor)  Nightjars (Caprimulgidae)
Common Nighthawk (Chordeiles minor) Nightjars (Caprimulgidae) | Source

The female Nighthawk is the sole incubator of the eggs.

She leaves the nest unattended while hunting in the early evening and morning. But you can be sure that the male is not far away standing guard and watching for any possible predators. After 18 days the young hatch and are covered in patches of fluffy down. At this point the male steps in to actively help with the feeding. Flying insects comprise the nestlings’ diet and are predigested and regurgitated by the parents. I know that sounds gross, but what can I say--it’s a bird thing!

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Chuck-will's-widowBuff-collared NightjarEastern WhipoorwillPauraqueEastern Whipoorwill very well camouflaged.
Chuck-will's-widow | Source
Buff-collared Nightjar
Buff-collared Nightjar | Source
Eastern Whipoorwill
Eastern Whipoorwill | Source
Pauraque | Source
Eastern Whipoorwill very well camouflaged.
Eastern Whipoorwill very well camouflaged. | Source

Six North American Species of Nightjars

Common nighthawks are one of 6 North American species, which include Eastern and Mexican Whip-poor-wills, Chuck-Will’s-Widow, Buff-collared Nightjar, and the Pauraque (pronounced “pa-RAW-kee”).

More from the Nightjar's Bag of Tricks

The magic tricks continue should the nest be approached by a would-be predator; mama nighthawk moves as though she has been injured, and clumsily flies a few yards away to lure the predator into following her and ignoring the nest and nestlings. Then when the interloper has been drawn far enough away, mama takes off and flies normally.

Did You Know?

The male produces a loud jarring or ‘churring’ call, and that’s how this bird came to be called a nightjar! Click the link to hear the strange sound it makes.

Nighthawk Call

link courtesy of: cc-by-nc/2.5/

Nighthawks hug branches laterally.
Nighthawks hug branches laterally. | Source

Master of Disguise & Energy Conservation

Nightjars do all their foraging while in flight at dusk, twilight, in moonlight and dawn. Because they are rarely used, their feet are tiny and legs are short. When they perch on a branch they hug it laterally so as to blend in with the bark. While they are nesting or resting from their night of foraging they stay snug to the ground. They are masters of disguise and invisibility.

Using the light of the moon, they zero in on their prey. On moonless or inclement nights and during the daytime, nightjars put themselves into a state of inactivity and remain motionless until hunting conditions are again favorable. In this way they are also masters of energy conservation.

Did You Know?

Nightjars are also known as bull bats because of their bat-like flight pattern, and their night time eating habits. Unlike bats, though, they do not use echo location to zero in on their prey. They use their keen eyesight to find dinner and breakfast.

My Nightjar Sighting

The porch light was on one night, so when I opened the front door I startled (well, actually we startled each other) a nightjar that had been eating the bugs flying around the dim light. It was just beginning to get dark, but I was able to make out the white wing patches. That's the one and only time I have actually seen a nighthawk.

Common Nighthawk Call--P.S. They Have a Big Mouth!

I hear them all the time, though. Just after twilight on moonlit nights I listen for their nasal 'spee-spee-spee’ sound and am delighted every time because I know they are here to do away with about 40% of the bugs in my backyard. Their mouths open wide to scoop the air for mosquitoes, crane flies, moths, beetles, flying ants and many other winged insects that damage our gardens.

Understandably, some of their favorite hunting grounds are grassy open areas near woodlands, where insects abound.

Lots of bugs in this grassy field!
Lots of bugs in this grassy field! | Source

Did You Know?

Despite the hazards of nesting directly on the ground, Nightjars are considered to be fairly long-lived-- up to 5 years, which is a long time in bird years.

Did You Know?

Common nighthawks somehow acquired the mistaken appellation of ‘goatsuckers’, from the long-held belief that they would sneak into barns at night and suck the milk from goats—NOT TRUE!

Nighthawks Disappearing in Some Areas

Preferring warmer temperatures and a constant reliable food supply, nightjars are one of the few birds that will inhabit a recently burned forest. They also prefer the bleak and drab colors of the backgrounds, again as a camouflage parlor trick. Being territorial and loving their solitude, this makes a great habitat for a nighthawk. Another strange predilection is for the use of flat gravel-coated rooftops for nesting, which are few and far between these days.

The use of toxic pesticides, loss of favored habitat, climate change and man-made towers as aerial hazards have brought about the decline of the common nighthawk in some areas. Because of their habit of nesting at ground level, they are susceptible to many predators including dogs, coyotes, cats, hawks, owls and falcons.

Common Nighthawk Migration

Along about February, the nightjars begin their journey northward from their temporary southern homes in South America. They will end up as far north as Canada and as far south as southern Texas, stopping along the way to forage.


Nighthawks have distinct white wing bars.

Nighthawk in flight.
Nighthawk in flight. | Source

They Take Their Time!

They travel in flocks, sometimes numbering in the thousands, during both daylight and nighttime hours. Then in mid-July after gorging on all the myriad bugs available during the warm summer months, they reverse their migratory journey and start back towards their more southerly climes. Taking their time, they eat en route, pausing to hunt along rivers and lakes as well as marshlands. During migration they seem to reserve the majority of food gathering for the sunset hours.

If someday you are so fortunate as to happen upon a nighthawk’s nesting or resting area, consider yourself lucky. This magician of the bird world is a rare sighting indeed! Not to mention the fact that he or she is rendering a great service in eradicating many thousands of bugs in your yard and gardens every day (or should I say night).

Have You Ever Encountered a Nighthawk?

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    • grandmapearl profile imageAUTHOR

      Connie Smith 

      5 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      Eddy, you are such a peach! I love your comments, and that you feel like you are walking with me. That really makes my day! Much love is heading your way, my dear friend ;) Pearl

    • Eiddwen profile image


      5 years ago from Wales

      Oh another wonderfully interesting and useful hub.

      You write so naturally and I could be walking by your side through Mother Nature's wondrous kingdom.

      Voting up and sharing onto my Fb page A Brand New Dawn.

      Lots of love from Wales and enjoy your day.


    • grandmapearl profile imageAUTHOR

      Connie Smith 

      6 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      Irc7815, you are very welcome! I appreciate the compliment. Have a great day!

    • lrc7815 profile image

      Linda Crist 

      6 years ago from Central Virginia

      Thanks grandmapearl. I had a feeling they didn't hunt on the ground but knew who to ask. :-)

    • grandmapearl profile imageAUTHOR

      Connie Smith 

      6 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      Irc7815, Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting. You have asked a very good question. Nightjars hunt from the air. While on the ground they keep very still so as not to be noticed by potential prey. They use their exceptional eyesight to locate moths and other flying insects on the wing. It is absolutely amazing how many bugs they can catch and do away with!

      I am glad you enjoyed this article. Thank you for your comments and the vote. All are very much appreciated.

    • lrc7815 profile image

      Linda Crist 

      6 years ago from Central Virginia

      Oh, I learned so much. I have never seen a nightjar so was fascinated by this hub. I'm curious though. Do they hunt on the ground like a Coopers Hawk or do they hunt from the air? What wonderfully useful little creatures they are. I really enjoyed this hub. Voted up.

    • grandmapearl profile imageAUTHOR

      Connie Smith 

      6 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      Hi suziecat7! Thanks so much for the great comments and the votes. I am very glad you enjoyed this article about a magical bird that I find fascinating.

    • grandmapearl profile imageAUTHOR

      Connie Smith 

      6 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      Highland Terrier, thanks for the great compliment! I am so glad you liked this article and enjoyed the videos. As a matter of fact, the birds we have here are descended from Old World nightjars brought over from Europe! Ours have become variants of their ancestors over time. Your great comments and votes are very much appreciated.

    • suziecat7 profile image


      6 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Wow - loved this Hub. I learned so much about a bird I knew so little about. Thanks - voted up and awesome!

    • Highland Terrier profile image

      Highland Terrier 

      6 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      An amazing bird, never heard of them.

      This was a very interesting hub kept me reading till the end. I expect there are none in Europe. Must ask Bird Watch Ireland.

      Loved the videos.

      Voted across the board.

    • grandmapearl profile imageAUTHOR

      Connie Smith 

      6 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      They are definitely amazing magicians! Thanks so much for reading and commenting, and for the great votes, Deb.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      6 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      I have never met a nighthawk! Thanks for the great story, awesome and up!


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