Common Name: Common Nighthawk
(Information for this species page was collected in part by Mr. Joseph Maltese for Biology 220W at Penn State New Kensington in Spring 2013)
The common nighthawk (Chordeiles minor) is a slim bodied, medium-sized bird (nine inches long), with long, slender, pointed wings (a twenty-two inch wingspan). Its feathers are a mottled swirl of brown, tan, white, and gray that so well camouflage the bird on the ground that it seems to just disappear when it lands and settles. It has a tiny beak but a very large, gaping mouth that it holds wide-open to gather insect prey in flight. Its wing shape enables it to fly very rapidly and also enables it to make very sudden and extremely agile maneuvers in flight in order to efficiently gather up great numbers of its insect prey. Image: Gary Kramer, US Fish and Wildlife Service Digital Library.
The common nighthawk is a solitary bird with rigidly defined and aggressively defended territories. In urban areas these territories average twenty-five acres in size, while in rural areas they can be nearly seventy acres. Prime characteristics of a territory include suitable nesting habitats (flat roofs in urban zones, and forest clearings, grasslands, sand dunes, rocky outcrops or cliffs, or farm fields in rural zones), small and large trees (for sentry perches and resting roosts), abundant insect prey, and a water source. Combinations of these habitat features can be found all across North America and the ability of the common nighthawk to adapt to variations in these variables explains the transcontinental distribution of this species.
Migration, Mating and Reproduction
Mating occurs on the ground and the fertilized female will eventually lay two eggs usually one or two days apart on her selected spot. There is no real nest, though. The coloration of the eggs (cream colored to pale greenish gray with dark brown blotches) makes them extremely hard to see and the aforementioned incredibly effective camouflaging of the adult birds make the nest spot very hard to locate. The female incubates the eggs for eighteen to twenty days, and then both the male and the female vigorously feed the nestlings for eighteen more days until the young fledge. The young nighthawks are weaned when they are twenty-five days old. If a second clutch is attempted the male assumes all of the responsibility for the nestling feeding while the female incubates the second batch of eggs.
The common nighthawk stays in its breeding areas until cold weather or a decline in insect numbers is perceived. This typically occurs in the early weeks of September. They then form very large migratory flocks that find their way to the insect rich habitats across most of northern and central South America.
There is a general decline in common nighthawks all across North America especially in urban areas. The lack of suitable nesting sites is thought to be the primary reason for this decline.
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This page was last updated on
July 15, 2014