COMMON NIGHTHAWK – (Chordeiles minor)
The Common nighthawk is part of what is called the ‘goatsucker’ family, in reference to an undeserved reputation dating back some 2,000 years ago for those birds of sucking the milk of goats. For centuries now this belief has been known to be false, yet the family name (including in Latin) has yet to be changed. Nighthawks are also called ‘nightjars’ in Europe.
The common nighthawk, as its name implies, is active around sunset and sunrise, and also at night, especially on full moon ones. It has a very small bill but a gaping mouth, allowing it to catch insects in the air by diving on them. While doing so the bird’s wings make a characteristic ‘vrrrr’ sound. Its nasal ‘peent’ call is also easy to distinguish. Its diet also includes flying ants and termites which it catches in the air.
This bird is an interesting case of camouflage. In its natural habitat, it nests on the ground, so this trait is essential for survival. It measures around 24 cm (9 in.) long, and is mainly brown with white spots all over its plumage, making it difficult to see when immobile. It tends to sit on its short legs parallel to a branch, or on a post or roof. However when flying, the bird is easy to identify due to the boomerang shape of its wings, and the white spot near their middle.
Common nighthawks have adapted to cities decades ago by nesting on flat gravel roofs. However this makes their eggs vulnerable to predation, by crows for example. Secondly, modern construction methods no longer build those types of roofs. Will they return to their natural nesting areas, such as gravel or rocky surfaces?
In PEI, the common nighthawk is listed as nesting on the island, but sightings are rare. There was a report in the Nature PEI Newsletter 219 of a common nighthawk harassing an osprey on a nest in St. Catherines on May 31, 2016. Two common nighthawks were observed in the Selkirk area on June 18, 2017.
Conservation: The species is also considered as ‘threatened’. One suspected cause is the extensive use of pesticides. This bird’s diet is made of insects only. Here’s an article about sheep working to help preserve this bird’s habitat.