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Common Nighthawk: Acrobats of the Bird World

Common Nighthawk: Acrobats of the Bird World

Common Nighthawks do not live in my neighborhood. They do, however, live on the property where I spend much of my time housesitting at a strange rambling house on four acres of pristine desert land that backs up to the Phoenix Mountain Preserve in Arizona. I have been observing them frequently in the past year after one came close to beaning me in the head while I was standing in the dirt driveway. It was late at night, as quickly as it swooped down towards my head it then disappeared. I was saying goodbye to my friend Hank, who is 6’5”, when he also had to duck in order to avoid getting hit. Neither of us had any idea what it was, it seemed more like an apparition than a bird. We thought it could have been a bat.

Common Nighthawk – In-flight Male – by Alex Lamoreaux

Common Nighthawk – In-flight Male – by Alex Lamoreaux

Soon I began to see them flying diagonally out of the creosote bushes along the driveway and zig-zagging through the air most evenings. They swooped down at extreme angles and would disappear just as quickly. I was curious as to what they were so I called my veterinarian friend Virginia.

“I keep seeing these weird birds at night flying around at strange angles. They look like they are shooting out of the ground from the creosote bushes. Do you know what they are?” I asked.

“Nighthawks! They live all over the desert around Phoenix,” she told me.

I have lived in Arizona most of my life and had never heard of Nighthawks, let alone seen one, until the summer of 2013. Because Nighthawks do their foraging for food at night, I have rarely seen one during the day, and usually not until sunset. I saw one flying at dawn above the pool alongside a tiny bat. It was June and I had decided to take a swim. The sky was gray with smudgy clouds and there they were, fluttering in the air in the last moments before sunrise. This has made them more mysterious.

According to Audubon Magazine online, the Common Nighthawk is approximately 10″ (25 cm) in length. The article continues to describe them as a jay-sized bird, mottled brownish-black above and below, perfectly matching the ground. Long notched or square-tipped tail and long pointed wings with broad white wing bar. Male has a white throat patch and a white subterminal tail bar. Female has a buffy throat patch and no tail bar. Their flight is high and fluttery. (audubon.org)

I have witnessed them (often as many as four birds flying together in a disorganized group) flying close to the exterior walls of the house and coming dangerously close to flying into the large windows that look out onto the desert. Strangely, this happened late in the day before the sunset. Two Nighthawks, I am guessing they were male and female, swooped down from the sky into the alcoved patio at the front of the house and came about two feet from slamming into the thirty foot sliding glass wall. Their acrobatics remind me of World War II dog fighting planes.

Common Nighthawk – female perched – by Alex Lamoreaux

Common Nighthawk – female perched – by Alex Lamoreaux

Once mature desert cacti and trees were planted on the property in mid-2013, the Nighthawks moved in. The property is Sonoran desert, with acres of additional cactus that were added by the landscaping crew. The added vegetation is of the Baja California variety of cactus and plants, not the typical Arizona variety, which appear unarranged and natural amongst their Sonoran desert surroundings. Among the plants are immense yucca, giant boojum trees, barrel cactus, creosote bushes, and mesquite. There are also at least a dozen palo verde trees interspersed along a large rambling patio and three or four citrus trees hidden on the north side of the property. The plants have created an ideal environment for a variety of flying insects and a perfect location for the Common Nighthawks to feast.

“I think they are drawn to the areas of light because of the insects that swarm around it. It’s an opportunistic airborne smorgasbord,” observed my tall friend Hank. Hank is a high school science and math teacher in Tempe and only visits me on the property during his summer break. It is during these visits that we have observed the Nighthawks together. Our observations usually went something like this, “wow, did you see that? They almost collided!” Hank shouts. “They look like they’re on acid,” I reply. And then we sat under the dark sky and watched them fly overhead.

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[testimonial name=”” avatar=”none” image=”” company=”” link=”” target=”_self”] “Birds are like us. Warm-blooded, bipedal, color-visioned vertebrates. We find this wonderful.” (Haupt)[/testimonial]
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Night lighting on the property directed the flying insects towards the lights, which happen to be mostly around the pool. The Nighthawks began their flight pattern above and around the pool to feast, allowing me easy access to late night observations. They come out late at night, usually after midnight. I have watched them while paddling around in the lap pool as they fly in sporadic circles above the water, as if they are drunk, searching for insects to consume. Their mouths open wide as they appear to suck in mosquitoes and moths. They have no set pattern to their flight, it is a wonder they do not injure themselves. The feeling I have when I watch the Nighthawks flying and diving over my head is that of amazement. They are feathered acrobats zipping and swirling across the dark sky. Why is their flight pattern so fearless and reckless?

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[testimonial name=”” avatar=”none” image=”” company=”” link=”” target=”_self”] “Birds are not like us. Feathered, flying, scale-footed dinosaurs. We also find this wonderful.” (Haupt) [/testimonial]
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Common Nighthawks have moved into towns and cities, where flat roofs provide abundant nest sites, and railroad yards, vacant lots, and sports fields offer good feeding opportunities. This bird’s name is somewhat inappropriate, since it is not strictly nocturnal, often flying in sunlight, and it is not a hawk, although it does hawk, catching flying insects on the wing. On its breeding grounds, the male does a power dive and then, as it swerves upward, makes a booming sound with its wings. Its capacity to consume insects is prodigious. Analysis of stomach contents has shown that in a single day one bird captured more than 500 mosquitoes and another ate 2,175 flying ants. (Audubon Society Magazine Online)

The Nighthawks diet consists almost exclusively on flying insects. The Common Nighthawk hunts on the wing at dawn and dusk, opening their small tiny beak to reveal a cavernous mouth well suited for snapping up flying insects. It often takes advantage of clouds of insects attracted to streetlamps, stadium lights, and other bright lights. They eat most insects that are available in the area they are currently living in. They also eat small amounts of vegetation. Though they forage in low light, they seem to locate prey by sight, possibly with the help of a structure in their eyes that reflects light back to the retina to improve their night vision. They occasionally forage during the day in stormy weather. They may forage near the ground or water, or more than 500 feet into the sky (allaboutbirds.org).

Common Nighthawk populations declined by almost 2 percent per year between 1966 and 2010, amounting to a cumulative decline of 59 percent, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Canadian populations experienced declines of up to 4 percent, and recent data suggest the species’ numbers may have dropped by as much as half in Canada since the mid-1960s. Hard numbers are difficult to come by because the Common Nighthawk’s cryptic colors and nearly nocturnal habits make them difficult to count during standardized surveys. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 16 million, with 88 percent breeding in the U.S., 5 percent in Canada, and 4 percent in Mexico. The 2014 State of the Birds Report listed them as a Common Bird in Steep Decline, and they rate a 11 out of 20 on the Partners in Flight Continental Concern Score. Across North America, threats include reduction in mosquitoes and other aerial insects due to pesticides, and habitat loss including open woods in rural areas and flat gravel rooftops in urban ones. Nighthawks are also vulnerable to being hit by cars as they forage over roads or roost on roadways at night. People have had some success creating nesting habitat by placing gravel pads in the corners of rubberized roofs and by burning and clearing patches of forest to create open nesting sites (allaboutbirds.org).

“Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception,” Carl Sagan (Brainyquotes.com). When I found this quote I thought, “Now there’s someone who shares my opinion about the world.”

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I do not have much faith in humankind when it comes to preservation of other species. Yes, there are many kind souls and organizations fighting for the health and wellbeing of endangered and declining plants and animals, however, I feel that over all humans, aka, governments, will put profits and “progress” ahead of other species. “Though it might be nice to imagine there once was a time when man lived in harmony with nature, it’s not clear that he ever really did” (Kolbert 193).

 

In parts of the United States, especially in the South, nighthawks are known as bats, since the birds are usually seen at dusk when their erratic flight resembles somewhat that of the common mammal. This resemblance linked with the bellowing or booming sound produced by the wing feathers during the courtship plunge has given source to the commonly used name bullbat. Audubon (1840) used the synonym Virginia bat and stated that the French Creoles of Louisiana knew the nighthawk by the metaphorical French name “crapau volans,” or flying toad. In the Bahamas, as well as in certain localities of America, a common local name is “pick-a-me-dick” a crude imitation of one of its notes. The name mosquito hawk was well earned by one individual that, according to the Biological Survey, had eaten 300 mosquitoes. Other names sometimes applied to the nighthawk but less frequently than some of those previously mentioned are pisk, pork and beans, will-o’-wisp, burnt-land bird, and bird hawk (birdwatcherdigest.com).

Nighthawks are members of the goatsucker family, which got its name from the mistaken impression that these birds sucked milk or blood from goats and other livestock (birdwatcherdigest.com). This myth is totally gross and not true, though it could explain why I saw the one Nighthawk flying around with the tiny bat at dawn last June.

In some Native American mythology the notes of Nighthawks appealed most, since the names chosen by the various tribes were usually graphic allusions to the calls or to the characteristic booming noise heard during the courtship season. To the tribes along the Connecticut River this booming was the sound of the Shad Spirit announcing to the schools of shad, about to ascend the river, of their impending fate. The nighthawk was known to the Seminoles of Florida as “Ho-pil-car.” In the Milicite Indian Natural History there is the name “Pik-teis-k wes,” and according to W. W. Cooke (1884) the Chippewas not only had the name “Besh-que” for the nighthawk but recognized it as a species distinct from the whip-poor-will, to which they gave the name “Gwen-go-wi-a.” That the Chippewa Indians differentiated these two species is all the more remarkable when we recall that this distinction was confused by Catesby and the American ornithologists of the next 50 years who followed him. It was Alexander Wilson who first noted that they were distinct species (birdbybent.com).

Common Nighthawks are some of the last migratory birds to arrive at spring breeding grounds and some of the first to leave in fall. This is attributed to the fact that warm temperatures are requisite for flying insect activity in early evening and morning. Also, while some caprimulgids go into torpor to conserve energy on cold nights, Common Nighthawks are not known to do so, thus making them more sensitive to colder temperatures.(azgfd.gov)

They are known to migrate 2,500 to 6,800 miles, one of the longest migrations of any bird in the Americas. They migrate in flocks, especially in the fall, most passing through Middle America, but some crossing the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean to Florida. They may be seen riding thermals at this time, much like migrating hawks. (azgfd.gov)

 

Both of Arizona’s nighthawks are migratory birds that winter south of the border. During spring and summer, lesser nighthawks occur in the southern portions of the desert southwest, and common nighthawks occur in the western United States, Canada, and central Mexico. In Arizona, lesser nighthawks generally occur below 5,000 ft, in the southern half of the state. Common nighthawks occur in central and northern Arizona at 4,800 to 7,600 feet. The species overlap locally in southeast and north-central Arizona. (azgfd.gov)

Common nighthawks are highly territorial, solitary nesters. Males will defend their territory by diving at intruders. The territory size varies between habitat types, but appears to range between 41,000 and 280,000 square meters. (azgfd.gov)

In the late spring two tiny chicks came hopping out from under a creosote bush and ambled onto the dirt driveway. I had no idea what they were since there were no trees nearby for them to have fallen out of. I later discovered that the mother lays her eggs on the ground and, in this case, the babies were born under a creosote bush on top of rocks and dirt, not in an actual nest. After I picked up one of the chicks the mother came out of nowhere and started tumbling around on the ground as if she had injured herself. Apparently, this is how the mother distracts a predator away from her offspring. I got the hint and put the chicks back under the bush. By the next day the babies and momma had moved away to a different location.

Shortly after my discovery of the Nighthawk chicks I noticed that only one or two of the birds were flying late at night over the pool in search of insects. My assumption was that the mother would stay with the chicks for safety, while the father would forage for bugs.

“The Common Nighthawk mother lays two creamy or olive gray finely and densely speckled eggs laid on the ground or on top of a graveled roof”(birds.audubon.org). “The mothers will sometimes roll their eggs into the shade during the heat of day, and return them to the nest in the evening. Chicks are semiprecocial at hatch and able to crawl short distances within 1-2 days. Young fly at 21 days and are capable of sustained flight at 23 days” (azgfd.gov). In the case of the two chicks I observed in late May-early June of this year, the mother kept them amongst desert rocks under a creosote bush. When she was laying on top of them all three would disappear into the landscape as if by magic. I have not seen the chicks since.

The Nighthawk does appear occasionally in Native American mythology. Their tales can be elaborate and full of magic, not unlike the Nighthawk themselves. One such story is called “The Flight of the Nighthawks”. In this story…

A group of people go out in the forest ahead of time and cut down an evergreen tree. They strip off all the branches, except for a few stubs to be used as footholds in climbing up and down the pole. They carry it to the appointed place near the village, being careful not to let the pole touch the ground along the way. If there is a location where a cliff has a sharp drop off, that would be the likeliest spot chosen. A hole is dug and the pole is anchored very firmly in the ground. A circular turntable is attached to the very top, and on this revolving platform the Musician sits. He plays the flute and the drum. Flute music encourages plants to grow, and the beat of the drum calls The People to the Ceremony.

There are four fledgling Nighthawks (virgin young men) who participate in this breathtaking flight. These young men must never have had a love affair, nor can they be sought after by any young lady, lest their lives be endangered. Each flyer wears hawk feathers in his hair and at his ankles. He ties a rope around his ankles, climbs up the pole and attaches the other end of the rope to the platform. He then lowers himself and, upside down, swings thirteen times around the pole, making a total of 52 complete circles (13 x4).

This is a death-defying act, especially so if the pole is set up near the edge of a cliff and the flyers are suspended over the edge, soaring out into open space. At the end of the circling, each fledgling Nighthawk returns to the platform for a landing, unties his ankles, and climbs down the pole to the ground. This ritual is performed at sunrise; and immediately thereafter, all go to the water. They stand beside a running stream, with toes just touching the water, facing upstream toward the cataract. A sacred prayer is given, after which all are totally immersed in the water, even if the weather is freezing. The Ulunsu’ti (magic Crystal) Stone is brought out from its secret hiding place, unwrapped from its doeskin sac, and examined by a holy person. The Stone tells what the crops will be like for the coming year. (Dingman’s Ferry)

The Mythology of All Races

The Indians know the poetry of the stars. It Is odd to find the Iroquois telling the story of the celestial bear, precisely as It is told by the Eskimo of northern Greenland: how a group of hunters, with their faithful dog, led onward by the excitement of the chase, pursued the great beast high into the heavens, and there became fixed as the polar constellation (Ursa Major). In the story of the hunter and the Sky Elk the sentiment of love mingles with the passion of the chase. Sosondowah (“Great Night”), the hunter, pursued the Sky Elk, which had wandered down to Earth, far up into the heaven which Is above the heaven of the Sun. There Dawn made him her captive, and set him as watchman before the door of her lodge. Looking down, he beheld and loved a mortal maiden; In the spring he descended to her under the form of a bluebird; In the summer he wooed her under the semblance of a blackbird; in the autumn, under the guise of a giant nighthawk, he bore her to the skies. But Dawn, angered at his delay, bound him before her door, and transforming the maiden into a star set her above his forehead, where he must long for her throughout all time without attaining her. The name of the star-maiden, which is the Morning Star, is Gendenwitha, “It Brings the Day” (Hathi Trust Digital Library).

Late on the Sunday night of Labor Day weekend I was meditating with a friend on the pool deck for twenty-four minutes. We spent most of the evening waiting for the Nighthawks to come out so that I could make my observations, but they never arrived. Once we began to meditate, and the mantra music started to play, four Nighthawks suddenly appeared directly over us. They swooped low over the pool water and flew in circles above our yoga matts. Within minutes of our meditation ending they completely disappeared into the darkness.

Finally, after almost a week of looking for them, at 1:30 in the morning three of the Nighthawks arrived circling sporadically above the pool. They appeared to be in such a feeding frenzy that at times they came dangerously close to colliding. On this particular night the three of them were flying like Kamikazes over my head. I pulled out my tripod and camera gear, setting my ISO speed to 1600, but they were blurred dots in all of the photos so I gave up. I have been searching for their nesting areas for many days. Their chicks are five months old so there is no longer a need for them to remain under the nearby bushes on the property. Where they are now hiding during the day has become a mystery. It is like they are magicians, disappearing and reappearing after midnight.

It is now the third week of October and I have not seen a single Nighthawk in over a month. I have looked in other locations around the city where they’ve been spotted before. The nights are now cooler and for the time being they have vanished. Perhaps they are on their long journey south to the warmer climates of Mexico.

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