Editor’s note: The following column was originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader on July 17, 1999.
ONE OF MY favorite childhood riddles went like this:
“When is a door not a door?” And the answer, of course, is “When it’s a-jar.”
Now, here is a made-up riddle:
“When is a hawk not a hawk?” The answer: “When it’s a nighthawk.”
Nighthawks have always fascinated me. My interest in them began as a small boy while visiting my Grandfather Ward at his home located not far from Central Square in the city of Keene. I looked forward to dusk when these birds would apparently come from nowhere and swoop and cry over the city.
There were two great elm trees at the street-side corners of the lawn at Grandfather’s house, and I learned it was in those trees that at least some of the nighthawks spent most of their daytime hours. Grandfather was pleased that I had taken a great deal of interest in the nighthawks’ early evening and nighttime forays. One afternoon he pointed to a particular limb on one of the elm trees and asked me what I saw. The limb was quite high from the ground and at first I couldn’t make out anything. However, guessing that he must be pointing out a nighthawk, I kept looking.
Whenever we went for walks together, Grandfather always carried a small pair of field glasses wrapped in a linen handkerchief in his coat pocket. Not having the glass with him, he said, “You keep studying the limb while I get the glass.” Study as I might, I still couldn’t make out a bird in the elm. When Grandfather returned and handed me the glasses, I quickly saw what I had thought was a lump on a limb was a nighthawk. I had expected to see a bird perched crosswise of a limb as the birds I knew always roosted that way. I learned, however, that nighthawks perch lengthwise of a limb and with their natural camouflage make themselves mighty inconspicuous.
Nighthawks have become city dwellers partly because of the tar-and-gravel flat roofs that are in abundance in most cities. Not being nest builders, they simply lay their two eggs on a selected spot on the roof and brood them there. Historically, they nested on bare ground in a field, a flat rock, ledge or in an open gravel area.
The nighthawk is not only a most intriguing bird but it is also a very useful species. Its diet consists wholly of insects of all kinds. As we alluded to in our riddle, it is not a hawk. It does somewhat resemble a small hawk when seen in flight, and also when perched with its wings longer than its tail, but close up the differences are easily distinguishable. A nighthawk’s flight is quite erratic. Its bill is very wide and it has an extremely large mouth to enable it to catch insects easily while in full flight. Unlike the feet of hawks, theirs are not designed to grasp prey.
Although it does fly in broad daylight, the nighthawk usually rests during the brightest part of the day. It is most frequently seen in late afternoon, particularly at dusk, as well as throughout the night.
The nighthawk is a full cousin to the whippoorwill and both are members of the nightjar family. The name “nightjar” comes from the loud, distinctive cries the birds make during the nocturnal hours. The members of this family are also called goatsuckers. Old legend has it that these birds sucked milk from goats at night.
Even though I see nighthawks feeding at dusk over the farm in spring and fall during their migrations, I rarely see them otherwise. I think of them as “city birds,” for that is where I have seen and heard them most frequently. When in a city on summer evenings. I love to watch and hear them flying in their quick, erratic manner, now low, now high, above the treetops and houses. On summer evenings in Concord, our capital city, I have seen their nests on the flat roof of a building on Main Street. As darkness arrived, I particularly enjoyed hearing them as they foraged for night-borne insects. Their nasal call, “peent,” and the resonant ‘booming’ sound made by the air as it rushed through their primary feathers at the bottom of their dive was exciting.
It will be a few weeks yet before those of us who live in river valleys will begin to see these birds in migratory flocks. It is in late August that the southward movement of nighthawks begins. Although in late years I have missed these large flights, in past years I have seen waves of up to a hundred or more in late afternoon or during the evening hours.
As far as I know the common nighthawk (Chordeiles minor) is not on the endangered species list. However, as is the case with their cousins the whippoorwills, it appears that there are fewer of these fascinating species than there used to be.
Stacey Cole, Nature Talks columnist for more than 50 years, passed away in 2014. If readers have a favorite column written by Stacey that they would like to see reprinted, please drop a note to Jen Lord at firstname.lastname@example.org.