The life history of the Common Nighthawk is so tightly tied to our own that it is amazing how successfully they fly “under the radar”. They have adapted so completely to our urbanization of their environment there is not a grocery store or shopping mall that isn’t patrolled by these voracious insect eaters. Normally crepuscular in habit (feeding at dawn and dusk), they swarm parking lot security lights at all hours.
Nighthawks belong to the Nightjar family which includes Whip-poor-will and Chuck-will’s-widow. The family is called Caprimulgidae from the Latin caper which means goat and mulgeo to milk or suck. There is a legend that these birds sucked milk from goat in the night but they actually were feeding on flying insects stirred up by the goats. Another legend has them sucking the blood of goats. Biting insects attack the goats causing them to bleed. The innocent Nighthawks were eating the insects preying on the goats.
Common Nighthawk eat and drink “on the wing”, which means that they snatch insects in flight and skim calm lakes and creeks for water. The tiny beak belies the astounding gape of these birds. Unlike many birds that eat on the wing and use the beak to manipulate the prey before swallowing, the Nighthawk simply sweeps the air like a butterfly net scooping up everything in its path.
Considered to be strictly ground nesters, the flat gravel covered roofs provide uniquely predator proof nesting sites. In the “wild” these birds rest on the ground where they blend perfectly into the leaf-litter. When startled, they bounce relatively short distances and try to hide again.
Like the Whale Shark, which is neither a shark or a whale, the Nighthawk doesn’t exclusively feed at night, nor is it a hawk. Yet, the Wildlife Center receives many “hawks” each year that turn out to be Common Nighthawks. The coloration reminds one of hawks and owls, but the tiny pointed beak and unusually small feet are definitely not like a raptor’s. They are the crepuscular equivalent to swallows and swifts.
The male’s mating acrobatics are unique in that steep dives culminate in a loud booming sound as it soars up again. The Common Nighthawk migrates tremendous distances, some travel from northern Ontario to central Argentina. The Houston area hosts several different species from this family as they migrate through in the spring and the fall. The species that nests here is the Common Nighthawk.