Oh BOY! It’s that time of the year again: the big announcement ABA members have been waiting for.
By Alexandria Simpson
Big, black eyes…cryptic grey, brown, black, and white
feather patterns…erratic flight.
Have you guessed the 2013 ABA Bird of the Year yet?
If not, here’s a couple more clues—hot summer nights spent
watching them dive and climb after insects, repeatedly calling “peent”.
Okay, I won’t keep you in suspense any longer…
It’s the Common Nighthawk, an easily observed bird over most
of the US, yet another excellent choice for the Bird of the Year.
When Jennie asked me to write a post about the 2013 BOY, I
felt a little nostalgic. I don’t
remember the exact date I first observed a Common Nighthawk, but for more than
five years, this species has been darting through my binoculars from the Rio
Grande Valley where I first began my love of birding, to central Texas where I
now reside, and a few places in between. I have observed many, many nighthawks, but I still enjoy watching their
bouncy, unpredictable way of flying.
Just this past summer, three, sometimes four, nighthawks
would take drinks from the pond every evening, before the sun went down. They skimmed the water briefly, then circled
around and repeated again and again. I
imagine they also captured insects hanging around the pond. Many evenings, just after sundown, they dove
and dodged for insects attracted to the security lamp, flying only a few feet
above my head! Attempts to photograph
them were futile—all the photos I snapped were blurry or grainy. Perhaps next year I’ll get the perfect shot…
Not only do they fly crazily, but nighthawk feather patterns are
just as unpredictable. Their backs are
eccentric patterns of black and buff; because of this, they, like other
nightjars, are the kings (or queens) of camouflage. They can’t be compared to brightly colored
birds like warblers, but I find their concealing plumage fascinating. Nine subspecies are proof that this bird has
mastered adaptations for varying habitats.
Camouflaged feathers are just the start of adaptations for
these birds. One interesting nighthawk
characteristic is the large gape, which allows it to catch its meal while swooping
through the air. When compared to the
tiny, almost invisible beak, it seems even larger. Another curious adaptation is the bristles
surrounding the mouth. Scientists are
not exactly certain what function these bristles serve; there are, however, several
theories: sensing prey near the mouth like a cat’s whiskers, a “net” to help
funnel insects into their mouths, and/or to prevent dust from entering the eyes
when the bird is capturing prey.
Adaptations are far from being the only things that make
Common Nighthawks so captivating. Male
nighthawks perform a display that consists of climbing high, then diving
sharply toward the ground. As he stops,
he beats downward with his wings, which makes a loud whoosh. Alexander Wilson described this noise as a “loud
booming sound very much resembling that produced by blowing strong into the bunghole
of an empty hogshead” (the hole in the top of a barrel). Most of the time, this
is a courtship display where he dives at a female, but sometimes it’s aimed at
an intruder, or even a person. Although
I’ve never been dived bombed by a Common Nighthawk, I have witnessed too many
of these dives to count. These displays,
along with their erratic way of flying have given them the name of “bullbat”.
Bullbat is not the only name nighthawks are known by. Native Americans knew the Common Nighthawk
very well and imitated their booming sounds in tribal dances and rituals. The Seminoles called the bird “Ho-pil-car”; other
tribes dubbed it “Pik-teis-a-wes”. Chippewas named it “Besh-que”. This tribe distinguished it from the Whip-poor-will long before US ornithologists
did. Mark Catesby (1682-1749), the “founder”
of American Ornithology, did not separate these two species; not until the
early 1800s did Alexander Wilson make the distinction. Another old name for nighthawk is goatsucker,
which comes from the myth that they sucked milk from goats’ udders at night;
they flew low over the fields at night, eating the bugs the stock stirred up,
so this myth isn’t too farfetched.
Its current common name, nighthawk, is yet another bird
misnomer. They are active at dusk and
dawn (and often after an afternoon rainstorm), not night, and they certainly
are not hawks. Chordeiles, the genus name, is Greek and means “music in the
evening”, which is appropriate considering they feed, call, and display at
dusk, filling the twilight hours with an inharmonious, jarring concert. Nighthawks are active from about a half hour
before sunset until about an hour afterwards. The hour before sunrise also finds them flying about in search of
Speaking of feeding, Common Nighthawks prey upon mostly
insects: queen ants, wasps, beetles, caddis flies, moths, bugs, mayflies,
flies, crickets, grasshoppers, and many other winged insects. Sometimes, they also eat leafy greens. Observers in the South have seen how
nighthawks help control cotton boll weevils.
Because they feed in low light, you would think they rely on
heat detection, or perhaps eco-location, like bats. Not so! Scientists believe they locate their prey by sight; they have special
structures in their eyes that reflect light back to the retina. This helps to improve their night vision. Interestingly,
they feed anywhere from a few feet off the ground to more than 500 feet in the
Although Mom and Dad supply meals and plenty of snacks (regurgitated
insects, yum!), no elaborate accommodations are provided for nighthawk eggs or chicks. The female selects an open, unsheltered
place, sometimes near a log or clump of shrubs, and digs out a shallow hollow which
she lines with leaves, moss, and lichens. In the city, they will nest on a flat gravel roof. Nighthawk nests are usually solitary, but
occasionally, two or more will be placed close together.
The IUCN lists the Common Nighthawk as a “Species of Least
Concern”, numerous over most of its range but declining locally in both Canada
and the US. This decline is due to habitat
loss and insect population declines from pesticides. Also, as they fly over lighted roads, they
are in danger of being hit by cars. A
couple of conservation ideas for the Common Nighthawk: placing gravel pads on corners of rubber
roofs, and burning or clearing patches of forest create nest sites.
Although these nighthawks are some of the most studied and best-known
nightjars, there is still much we don’t know. Studies are often short and sketchy, so specific life history details
are scarce, especially from South America wintering places.
I think the ABA has once again chosen an excellent species
for Bird of the Year. While I enjoyed
learning about the Evening Grosbeak, there is something about knowing the bird
species personally and sharing memories of it. I know I’ll be watching for them next summer, and I’m willing to bet I’m
not the only birder who will be. Let’s
hear it for 2013 and the Common Nighthawk!
You can learn more about the Common Nighthawk, download a BOTY badge for your own blog, and more at the ABA's official 2013 Bird of the Year page, and check out the official announcement on the ABA Blog.
additional reading go to: http://www.birdzilla.com/birds/Common-Nighthawk/bent_life_history.html. This
account gives wonderfully detailed subspecies descriptions as well as
observations and notes from early ornithologists.
Brigham, R. M., NG, Janet, Poulin, R. G., and Grindal, S.
D.. 2011. Common Nighthawk (Chordeiles minor), The Birds of North America
Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the
Birds of North America Online: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/213doi:10.2173/bna.213
Sibley, David Allen. The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and
Behavior. New York: Alfred A. Knopf Chanticleer Press. 2001.
About the author: Alexandria Simpson is an avid, sixteen-year-old birder from Santa Anna, Texas. While she wishes she could say she has been birding all of her life, instead she has spent the last four years making up for lost time. She wants to become an ornithologist and someday read scientific papers without falling asleep. Her photography, illustrations, and writings have won awards at local, state, and national levels.