At a Glance
This widespread and familiar bird may hunt by day or night, catching flying insects in the air. Its bounding, erratic flight and angular wings make it unmistakable except in the southwest and in Florida, where two other types of nighthawks occur. Originally nesting on open ground, Common Nighthawks have learned to nest on flat gravel roofs; their nasal cries and 'booming' display dives may be heard over many cities.
All bird guide text and rangemaps adapted from Lives of North American Birds by Kenn Kaufman© 1996, used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Nightjars, Upland Ground Birds
Arroyos and Canyons, Coasts and Shorelines, Desert and Arid Habitats, Fields, Meadows, and Grasslands, Forests and Woodlands, Shrublands, Savannas, and Thickets, Urban and Suburban Habitats
Alaska and The North, California, Eastern Canada, Florida, Great Lakes, Mid Atlantic, New England, Northwest, Plains, Rocky Mountains, Southeast, Southwest, Texas, Western Canada
Range & Identification
Migration & Range Maps
A long-distance migrant, wintering mostly in South America. Often migrates in flocks, sometimes numbering in the hundreds.
10" (25 cm). Usually seen in flight, showing white bar across outer part of angled, pointed wings. At rest, note heavily barred underparts In Florida and southwest, see Lesser Nighthawk and Antillean Nighthawk.
About the size of a Crow, About the size of a Robin
Black, Brown, Gray, Tan, White
Long, Pointed, Tapered
Songs and Calls
A loud nasal call, peent or pee-yah, heard primarily at dusk.
Buzz, Odd, Scream
Open country in general; often seen in the air over cities and towns. Inhabits any kind of open or semi-open terrain, including clearings in forest, open pine woods, prairie country, farmland, suburbs and city centers.
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2, rarely 1-3. Whitish to pale buff or gray, heavily spotted with brown. Incubation is mostly by female, about 19 days. Incubating bird may shift position during the day so that the sun is always at her back. Young: Both parents care for young, feeding them regurgitated insects. Age of young at first flight is about 21 days.
Both parents care for young, feeding them regurgitated insects. Age of young at first flight is about 21 days.
Forages most actively near dusk and dawn, also during the day and at night, perhaps especially on moonlit nights. Forages mostly in flight, scooping up flying insects in its wide, gaping mouth. Will feed around bright lights at night, taking the insects attracted there. May rarely take insects from the ground.
Insects. Feeds mainly on flying insects, including beetles, moths, grasshoppers, and many others. Will feed heavily on swarms of winged ants or termites.
In male's courtship display flight, his wingbeats become even more stiff and choppy as he circles and hovers high in the air, calling repeatedly; then he goes into a steep dive, with a rushing or "booming" sound made by air passing through wing feathers at bottom of dive. Landing near female, he spreads his tail, rocks back and forth, and calls. Nest site is on ground or bare open soil, often in a sandy place; also on gravel roofs, sometimes on top of a stump or other raised object. No nest built, eggs laid on flat surface.
Declining seriously in numbers in many parts of North America. Causes may include changes in land use and overuse of pesticides. In some areas, nighthawks nesting on gravel roofs have been targeted by increasing urban populations of crows, which eat the eggs.
Audubon’s scientists have used 140 million bird observations and sophisticated climate models to project how climate change will affect the range of the Common Nighthawk. Learn even more in our Audubon’s Survival By Degrees project.
Climate Threats Facing the Common Nighthawk
Choose a temperature scenario below to see which threats will affect this species as warming increases. The same climate change-driven threats that put birds at risk will affect other wildlife and people, too.