Birding

The Common Nighthawk Is the Cool City Bird You’ve Been Missing

Here's how to find out if one's nesting by you—and what to do if one isn't.

Picture me in my 1970s-style apartment, chilling in a sunken living room with my rabbit, listening to Common Nighthawks buzz over Minneapolis. That was the scene last June when I noticed a pair of odd-sounding nighthawks off my deck. Lo and behold, there were two immature birds with boomerang-like wings, trailing behind a darker adult.

That made me wonder: Were there nighthawks squatting on my building? The species often nests on gravel in cities—similar to the flat, rock, dirt, and sand expanses they use in wilder settings. I couldn’t access my roof without permission, so I had to gather evidence in other ways. I checked out the satellite view on Google Maps and was delighted to discover that my building had a gravel top. What’s more, it was the only one on the block that did. The birds had to be nesting right above me.

Common Nighthawks hold a special place in my heart; they were one of the first species I identified on my own as a kid. They’re also very adaptable and quirky. The birds breed all over the United States and much of Canada, typically from May through August. Their cryptic plumage keeps them hidden during the day, but they’re noticeable at dusk, when they issue their raspy bee-yoot calls in flight. (When I did bird surveys in Texas, though, they called and displayed most anytime.) Their tiny beaks hide huge mouths, which they use to scoop up insects as they zoom around on white-banded wings. In fall, gigantic swirling flocks of nighthawks migrate to South America—a spectacular evening sight in both cities and the countryside.

But nothing beats the male’s mating display in spring. As the nighthawk starts calling at dusk, it dives deep, allowing the air to pass through their wing feathers makes and make a “booming” sound. (I think it sounds like George Jetson’s car.) The male will swoop repeatedly over the female during courtship and while she’s incubating. The nest is as basic as it gets: As long as the substrate matches the color of the eggs, nighthawks will just plop their eggs down on open ground. The chicks hatch about 18 days later, and usually take their first flight another 18 days after that.

Sadly, this behavior is becoming harder to find in cities and smaller towns. Nighthawks have experienced up to a 61 percent decline in the last 50 years. Factors may include pesticides, which affect their purely insect-based diets, and a rising trend in rubber roofs, which don’t offer the same camouflage as gravel. On rubber, the mottled brown and white chicks are more vulnerable to thriving predators like crows and Peregrine Falcons. Early surveys of introduced-Peregrine nests in downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul have revealed large numbers of nighthawk wings—the remains of the raptors' dinners.

Which makes a nighthawk sharing my address all the more exciting. As soon as one began displaying this month, I headed down to our building manager’s office to see if I could visit the roof. Katie is a friendly person, but I was still surprised by her response. “Let’s go right now!” she said.

As we climbed over pipes and solar panels, I gave Katie the rundown on nighthawks and how they were in dire straits. Suddenly, she asked, “Is this it?”

Twenty feet away was an incubating nighthawk splayed out on the gravel. We took a few pictures with our phones and my scope and left with a plan to visit in two weeks to check for chicks. In the meantime, she said she’d hold off on roof-maintenance work for a month to allow the birds to raise their young in peace.

It all goes to show, it’s worth looking out for nighthawks—both in the twilit skies and on your roofs. If you see an active one and suspect that it’s nesting in your neighborhood, figure out which buildings have gravel and try to secure access. Sometimes when you explain that there’s interesting, protected wildlife involved, the owners and management will want to see it, too. Or find a safe way to view the gravel roof from a taller building next door. Once you spot a bird on the rocks, stay a good distance away (20 feet away or more); you may hear hissing or witness a diversion dive after getting too close.

If your efforts are successful, be sure to log the results. I reported our nesting nighthawk on eBird with the breeding code for “incubating bird”; this data is essential for tracking the species’ imperiled breeding areas across the continent. Finally, once you’ve learned the bird’s habits, invite friends and neighbors over for a nighthawk tailgate. Grill some food, throw back some beers, and watch the display unfold like fireworks.

If you come up short on nighthawks, use it as an opportunity make your street more attractive for potential nesters. Contact the owners and management of local flat-roofed buildings to ask if they’d be willing to lay down a small gravel bed. Remember, these birds aren’t asking for much.

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