by John Severino
Chordeiles minor, also known as the Common Nighthawk is a member of the Caprimulgidae (Goatsucker Family). The term “goatsucker” came from the old belief that these types of birds would fly into barns at night and suck the teats of goats dry. Nighthawks are nocturnal birds and are confined to the Americas. Of the four genera of nighthawks, only three species can be found entirely in North America. The Common Nighthawk is one of these species. They are ground-nesters that predominantly breed in clearings, prairies, burned areas, cultivated fields, rocky outcrops, towns, and other open or semi-open habitats. It is said that when gravel roofs became common in buildings, an increase in Common Nighthawks started to occur because the gravel was suitable for nesting.
Common Nighthawks have relatively long wings and tails, short legs, weak feet, small bills, very large mouths, and large eyes. Common Nighthawks have uniquely pointed wings and a notched tail. When at rest, the wings extend beyond the tip of the tail. There is a noticeable white bar near the tip of the wing. Males show a white band near the tip of the tail. An upside-down “V” patch at the throat is white in males and yellowish in females. The head, chest and upperparts are variably gray, cinnamon or blackish, and spotted yellowish.
The Common Nighthawk is most active from late afternoon to dusk, and from dawn to early morning. However, they can be seen in broad daylight at times. They catch food on the wing, including flying ants and beetles, wasps, flies, mosquitoes, moths, and other insects. They usually fly very high up, around 600 feet. They sometimes feed on insects attracted to lights, because they are easily caught. Nighthawks drink in flight, skimming the surface of a pond or stream with their lower mandible. Nighthawks have a very distinctive flying pattern made up of quick flaps and long periods of gliding.
Common Nighthawks do not have nests. The female lays two heavily speckled eggs directly on bare ground. Only the female incubates. Both parents feed hatchlings regurgitated food. When the females encounter very high temperatures at the nest, especially on gravel roofs, they provide shade for their young. When temperatures drop, the females provide protection from the cold as well. Common Nighthawks have the ability to lose heat through a process called gular fluttering. They rapidly vibrate their throat muscles and bones, increasing evaporative cooling at the mouth lining and upper throat.
Common Nighthawks migrate long distances, leaving their extensive North and Central American breeding range. They spend their winters in South America, as far south as northern Argentina. Most North American populations move south through Central America, but some fly over the Caribbean. Migratory flocks of 20 or more may fly along established routes each fall. Common Nighthawks sometimes travel in huge flocks of up to 1,000 birds.
Written spring 2004, as a service learning project for Dr. Gary Coté's Biology 102 class at Radford University. Copyright Pathways for Radford.
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