By David Dyer, Curator of Natural History
As a child growing up in Columbus, the sight of more and more Nighthawks appearing in the late summer skies meant only one terrible thing that summer was waning and the start of school was getting closer! But I always enjoyed watching them swoop and dive in the late evening sky, grabbing up insects – especially mosquitoes- and listening to their peent-sounding cry. One day this week, we went back to the park where used to often see them, Whetstone Park, to play some Frisbee and enjoy the warm, late summer evening. Sure enough the Nighthawks were out, high above the trees, with their distinctive flying pattern and call. Then as we were tossing the Frisbee at dusk a Nighthawk flashed right between us, just feet off the ground! It flew right past us again and again, seemingly every time we would throw the Frisbee. Was it going for the Frisbee, instinctively responding to movement in the darkening sky? Or was it attacking us!?
Historic Nighthawk specimens in the Natural History Collections
The Common Nighthawk (Chordeiles minor) is not actually a hawk, even though it has a falcon-like shape and long pointed wings, but is in the Order Caprimulgiformes. Birds in this order are sometimes called Goatsuckers because people used to think that a similar species in Europe would suck milk from goats at night. Nighthawks have a small bill but have a freakishly wide mouth for snatching all types of flying insects from the air, from small mosquitoes to grasshoppers and moths. Nighthawks are also amazing because they have one of the longest migration routes of all North American birds, flying thousands of miles well into South America!
A little research showed that male Nighthawks will dive, either at intruders in their territory–including people–and will also do so as a display flight at female Nighthawks. Often there will be a distinctive “boom” at the bottom of their dive, caused by air rushing through the birds wing feathers. We didn’t hear this, so the boom sound may be reserved for mating displays. Anyway, I tell people I was swooped on by a Nighthawk rather than a Goatsucker, it just sounds better that way!
Curator of Natural History
P.S. Several people have told me how Nighthawk numbers seem to be declining over the years, and research bears this out. They are even listed as a Species of Special Concern in several U.S. states. Scientists think that use of pesticides to combat mosquitoes and other aerial insects, and habitat loss are reasons for their decline.
You can help to protect these unique birds by:
1) Avoiding pesticides that kill flying insects that Nighthawks might eat, and support efforts to keep rivers, lakes, and ponds free of pesticides
2) Providing habitat for flying insects, and
3) Provide gravel roofing for Nighthawk nesting areas or gravel nest patches on flat roofs.