The other day one of the city employees asked me what has happened to all the common nighthawks he used to see.
At first I told him it was because they tasted like chicken, but I got to thinking that I haven’t seen many around here, either.
Just to let you in on the prep for one of these columns, I normally use three sources for research; if they don’t agree, I go to a fourth. If no agreement there, I go to a fifth source. This topic took five sources, and they still weren’t in complete agreement.
In cases like that any figures (such as the number of days for something to happen) is averaged.
The common nighthawk is a medium-size bird with long, pointed wings and a medium-long tail. It’s camouflaged in gray, white, buff and black colors. The wings have a white blaze about two-thirds toward the tip, and they also have a V-shaped white throat patch.
The hawks fly in a looping pattern, with a bounding and erratic flight. They can be seen near dawn and dusk and rarely but sometimes hunting during a full moon. During the day they will roost motionless on a branch, fence post or on the ground. In insect-rich areas, such as billboard lights and lakes, they may gather in large flocks.
They forage in flight, catching their meals on the wing. Favorites include flying insects, beetles, moths and grasshoppers, and they will also feed on winged ants and termites.
These hawks inhabit any kind of open or semi-open terrain, forest clearings, open pine woods, prairies, suburbs and city centers.
They nest on the ground without building a nest. They prefer to nest in open areas near woods, wetlands, forest openings, sand dunes and gravel bars. In the city they like to nest on graveled roofs.
The female nighthawk chooses the nesting spot and also is the primary incubator of the eggs, although the male will at times take her place for her meals; while sitting on the nest, he feeds her through regurgitation. The female, while sitting on the nest, will keep turning to keep her back to the sun.
Two eggs are normally laid; they are whitish to pale buff or gray, heavily spotted with brown. These hawks produce a single brood per season. The eggs are incubated for about 19 days, and after hatching both parents care for the young. Feeding is done through regurgitation of the insects the parents have caught.
The first flight takes place in about 18 days; by the 30th day they are flying proficiently. After that they leave the nest, and at about 60 days they join the flock. It has been noted that nighthawks appear to be monogamous.
These hawks will winter in South America, leaving here around September and arriving back by late spring; the ones that head for the Yukon generally arrive in late June. During migration, flocks of hundreds or thousands are not uncommon. The hawks that live in the Caribbean area do not migrate but hang around all year.
The decline in numbers of these birds is due in part to the usual: humans. The overuse of pesticides and destruction of habitats are the primary causes. The increase in the crow population also has a hand in the decline; it seems crows like to eat the nighthawks’ eggs.
There are nine subspecies of this hawk; seven of those live in North America. In Indiana we have 16 species of raptors (birds of prey). These are: osprey, Mississippi kite, bald eagle, northern harrier, sharp-shinned hawk, Cooper’s hawk, northern goshawk, red-shouldered hawk, broad-winged hawk, Swainson’s hawk, red-tailed hawk, rough-legged hawk, golden eagle, merlin and peregrine falcon.
Hawks are regulated in state and federal laws, which prevent the capture, killing or possession without a special permit.