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When Is a Hawk Not a Hawk?
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
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.
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!
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.
link courtesy of: cc-by-nc/2.5/
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.
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.
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).