Not So Common Nighthawks

Common Nighthawk (photo by Daniel Berganza, GNU Free Documentation License)For me the common nighthawk is an iconic species.  Its diving courtship display so fascinated me as a ten-year-old that I developed a lifelong interest in birds.

Nighthawks used to be easy to find in my Pittsburgh neighborhood in summertime. I live across the street from a floodlit ballpark where I could watch them hawking insects at dusk in the bright ballpark lights.

But not anymore.  Common nighthawks have declined precipitously in Pittsburgh and the eastern United States, so much so that some states list them as an endangered species.

Common nighthawks are not hawks but nightjars, relatives of the whip-poor-will, whose diet consists solely of flying insects including mosquitoes, moths and flying ants.  They’re incapable of torpor and must eat hundreds of insects per night so they require warm weather and plentiful bugs. 

Nighthawks range widely in the Western Hemisphere migrating from Argentina to Canada.  They used to arrive in Pittsburgh around May 5 and leave by September 5.  During fall migration hundreds of birds would pass through at dusk for two weeks starting at the end of August. 

Surprisingly, common nighthawks have not been well studied, though new efforts are underway.  What is known is that in the northeastern U.S. they used to nest in natural areas.  Then in the 1890s they began to nest almost exclusively on gravel rooftops in cities and towns.  In the 1990s people replaced gravel roofs with rubber roofs and nesting opportunities disappeared.  Meanwhile something must have gone wrong at their wintering grounds or in migration (probably pesticides) because year after year fewer migrants leave in the fall and even fewer return in the spring.

Ten years ago there were several nesting pairs in my neighborhood but last summer there was only a lone individual calling for a mate who never came.  This year he called for two weeks and was gone.  I don’t think I’ll ever again see them nest in my neighborhood.

Considering their rapid decline, I may live to see common nighthawks go extinct east of the Mississippi just as peregrine falcons did when I was young.

With human help peregrines came back.  Can we save the nighthawk?

(photo from WikiMedia taken by Daniel Berganza near Miami, Florida.  Click the photo to see the original.)

15 thoughts on “Not So Common Nighthawks

  1. This is so heartbreaking. I wish I knew what more I could do to help them. It also makes me so angry. Is the drive for money so pervasive that industries relying on pesticides can’t at least make an effort to find alternative, eco-friendly alternatives? Are industrilized farms mostly to blame?

    I can’t help but wonder what good artificial nesting sites will do, if the use of pesticides isn’t abated enough to support the bird’s recovery. It’s just so frustrating.

    I’m sure I’m not alone if often feeling completely helpless to make a real difference. 🙁

  2. I have to say that I’m quite surprised by this as there is one (or more) who buzzes my bedroom window consistently on summer nights and has done so for years. I swear it makes laps around the block, zooming by my 3rd floor window with its “pneeet!” A few years ago it made me crazy enough that I was up at 3AM searching Cornell’s bird site listening to calls of nocturnal birds to figure out just what the creature keeping me awake was! I felt better when I learned they are major mosquito eaters. I guess I’ll think more kindly of “my” nighthawk now that I know he/she is among the endangered. 🙁

  3. Hi, Kate. Thank you so much for posting the info on the upcoming 3BC meeting . I LOVE the common nighthawk and it’s constant chirping during the summer nights. I hear it until very late in the night in my neighborhood of Point Breeze.

  4. Many years ago I used to see night hawks in Aspinwall when my mother took me to the grocery store…they would fly over the parking lot, catching insects that were attracted by the lights. And then when I started attending my daughters’ high school football games 8 years ago, there were night hawks that would fly around the stadium during the game. But after a few years, they were gone and never returned, and I haven’t seen one since. I didn’t realize that there was a widespread problem with the breed. It is surprising that they have been having problems recently, particularly since they have been successfully living in urban areas for such a long time. I am very sad to hear that, since I have many happy memories of warm summer nights spent watching their aerobatics and listening to their calls (not knowing what they were for a long time).

  5. Last summer I quite frequently heard them in my neighborhood here in the New Kensington area. I heard at least 2 so I presumed they were nesting somewhere nearby. Sadly I haven’t heard any this year. I do miss hearing their “peent” in the evening.

  6. I have lived in Washington DC near the Carter Barron Amphitheater for 40 years. I was formerly able to watch the Nighthawks circle above the Chimney Swifts each evening and watch a huge migration in late August or early September. I almost never see even one during an evening any more. In 2007 I chanced to look up and see a southbound migration of about 10. I have no specific knowledge of habitat on either end of the migration but I have empirical knowledge regarding available food right here in Washington DC. In the summer we attend performances at the Carter Barron Amphitheater. Twenty or more years ago, there would be so many insects flying around the lights that they might affect the performance. Now, there are at best a handful of insects around the lights. There are also only one or two bats in the tree tops, a few Chimney Swifts above the trees, and no Nighthawks. We’ve killed the insects so we have no birds. Almost weekly visits to the National Arboretum or the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens convince me that in general our bird populations are about 15% of what they might have been 20 years ago. The Bat Industry raises funds by claiming that they need money to protect the bats because if we lose the bats the insects will overrun us. This is absurd. The bats are dying off because we have killed off their food supply also. Silent Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter.

  7. Kate,

    I’ve been listening to the “peent” and watching birds that fly like bats over our house near Schenley Park each evening for weeks, and meaning to ask you what sort of birds they might be. I’m happy to report seeing two nighthawks consistantly, and three or four on a few evenings. Thanks for answering questions before they’re asked!

  8. You will be happy to hear that I just saw about 10-20 birds feeding over the Dormont Municipal Building tonight at 10:30pm. I believe that they were nightjars. They were slightly smaller than a pigeon with single white bars on their wings. I did not notice if they made a sound. They were actually quite white in appearance against the black night sky, with the moon in the background.
    I have also seen them on the island of Bonaire. They will sit on the side of a dirt road and you can see their eye glow, kind of red, and they fly up into the streetlights to feed.

  9. I was surprised to read that. We have common nighthawks here during the spring and summer. They fly through the air calling BEET-BEET; BEET-BEET. They are a joy to have. I’m so glad that are not uncommon here in Eastern South Dakota. I hope that they increase in numbers where you are.

  10. HI! I only see the nighthawks during migration. I live in southwest Virginia in the blue ridge at an elevation of over 3000 feet. Every year, I see my first migrating nighthawk around August 30. I counted over 50 yesterday evening (Sept. 3). Last year, September 7 I counted over 100. They usually are seen here after 7 pm. If they ARE declining, you can bet it is because of all the pesticide use in this country. Insect killing…ABSURD! People are spraying like it’s the right thing to do. There are so many species of birds that rely on insects to survive, and here in America…what are people doing??Spray for insects. Raid, Bug-Be-Gone, you name it. We are killing insects, and in turn, killing the species who depend on insects to survive. I am happy to say that I use NO insecticides or chemical fertilizers, or chemical herbicides. PEOPLE WAKE UP!

  11. I grew up in western PA & have lived in Pittsburgh’s east end for over 20 years, but it’s only been within the past few years that I’ve finally identified the calls & odd booming heard while walking my dogs at night as the common nighthawk. I heard the first one of this spring just last week, so they *are* still around—but in what numbers, who can say?

  12. There are many in the trees outside my window and are so very loud, it’s hard to get to sleep. I will be glad when they leave

  13. I lived near Pittsburgh until 1977 when I moved to Mercer county. It was common to see nighthawks on warm summer evenings. Often in a group of 8 to 10 birds. Since Moving to Mercer Pa I haven’t seen any nighthawks

    1. Tom, we have no nighthawks anymore in my Pittsburgh neighborhood either. They dwindled to one pair and now none.

  14. I carried papers in West Central Illinois as an early teen and frequently heard but could never locate the source of the odd chirping and diving sounds at dusk and occasionally at dawn while carrying and collecting for my early morning paper route. A few decades later while leaving a building near dusk at a Midwest university a relatively large bird swooped down and quickly reversed direction directly above me as if attempting to get my attention. I watched its somewhat erratic almost bat-like oscillatory flight for 10-15 minutes and noticed it would periodically return to an apparent nest on top of the building I was teaching in. After a brief conversation with a coworker who was nursing one of these birds back to health after it colided with a moving vehicle I was told the bird was a Nighthawk although it really wasn’t a hawk at all but, more like a “whip-poor-will” as my grandfather would call them. A month or so later the Nighthawks were gone and I assumed they must be migratory birds. I hoped to see the birds return the following year but unfortunately, I haven’t noticed any Nighthawks around the Iowa-Illinois Quad-Cities region for a few years now. I would be greatly disappointed to think these fascinating nocturnal avian creatures were gone forever. It’s odd that I hadn’t noticed these birds earlier in my life as Nighthawks and their unique yet obvious presence were always an integral part of Midwest life just as corn and small towns. I would hate to think that in some small and obscure manner I and we are contributing to the demise of these interesting creatures due to the products we use around our homes.

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