Aug 25, 2021 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, June 2021

Nighthawks in My Neighborhood

Common nighthawks can be found across most of the United States and Canada in the summer, and if you live anywhere near a location with bright lights, flat roofs, and trees, pay attention for their sound on warm evenings.
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The first time I saw a common nighthawk was in a Kmart parking lot. Dusk was turning into darkness that summer evening, and a strange noise was coming from the light fixtures—or so it seemed. The almost mechanical beert was coming from several of the bright lights. The sound was unlike anything I'd heard before; I couldn't help but glance up to see if the lights were sparking or there was some other electrical problem.

But, no. Those strange sounds were coming from graceful birds that were feasting on the moths and other flying insects that were attracted to the lights. There were about five of them diving and flitting as they fed. I could clearly see white rectangles toward the end of the wings, and then noticed that these birds had relatively long wings.

New to bird-watching at the time, I had no idea what these birds were, so I asked some friends who were experienced birders. Nighthawks, no doubt about it, they said. Now that I am attuned to it, that sound has been an important part of my summer evenings ever since. How could I have lived for so many years not noticing that sound? But I'm not alone in that regard.

Common nighthawk: small bill, huge mouth!

On many a summer evening—before COVID-19—when I've been enjoying a walk downtown or an al fresco dinner, I've heard nighthawks, and pointed out the sound to friends, who, like me, just weren't attuned to it. And then we'd look for the source of the sound, and there it was, long-winged, flying gracefully but noisily across the darkening sky. I've heard and spotted them above my house, so I've added the species to my yard list, which is taped to my refrigerator.

A few summers ago, when I was walking my dog around the block just at dawn, I encountered a nighthawk that was noisily and franticly flying and diving close to the ground just one block from my house. As it dove, it made a loud, scary hissing gaaah! I thought it must be in distress or attempting to drive off a cat or something. But, no. Online research revealed that this is part of the male nighthawk's courtship display, and that the sound is made by air rushing through the bird's wings! I had no idea. It was a thrilling performance, and I loved knowing that nighthawks were nesting on a flat roof somewhere in my historic, small-town neighborhood.

Visit web page to hear the typical beerz call of common nighthawks, along with the hissing, gaaah courtship calls as well. Click here »

Watch for a long-winged bird with rectangular wing patches flying above your yard this summer.

Common nighthawks can be found across most of the United States and Canada in the summer, and if you live anywhere near a location with bright lights, flat roofs, and trees, pay attention for their sound on warm evenings. If you hear it, you'll probably be able to see it, too. Look for those white rectangles on the long wings.

Sadly, this is a species whose population is in steep decline. The common nighthawk is less common than it was a few decades ago, when I saw my first ones in that well-lit parking lot. One big reason for the decline is because insects are also on a steep decline, and many birds, including nighthawks, can't exist without a healthy, abundant supply of insects.



About Dawn Hewitt

Dawn Hewitt is the editor at Watching Backyard Birds and Bird Watcher's Digest. She has been watching birds since 1978, and wrote a weekly birding column for The Herald-Times, a daily newspaper in Bloomington, Indiana, for 11 years.

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