Nighthawks in the City and the Coming of Spring

The other night I stepped outside for a minute and was immediately mesmerized, a quiet smile suffusing my heart. The nighthawks were calling as they soared over the rail yard across from my house in Baltimore.

Nighthawks, also known as goatsuckers, are in the Caprimiguldae or nightjar family, according to the American Bird Conservancy. They are remarkable birds that feed on the wing by opening their mouths and scooping up flying insects. Hearing them on a chilly February night lightens the heart, as they are among the true harbingers of Spring. Although the voice of a single Common Nighthawk (the species most frequently found in Maryland) is a simple nasal “peent” (and when diving, a booming mechanical sound), they migrate in flocks, and when a flock is calling the blending of voices creates a compelling, dissonant harmony.

Common Nighthawk in Flight (photo by Jacob W. Frank, NPS , Wikimedia Commons)

I listen as they glide above the rail yard, between a busy interstate and a neighborhood of row homes. Is this not a miracle—that creatures so wild can grant us their voice, despite the concrete, cars, and noise nearby? They ask nothing in return–only that they are left alone–and they remind us that despite our conceits we share this planet with other beings.

Although classified as a bird of least concern, Common Nighthawks are in steep decline, with an estimated 61 percent drop in population since the mid-1960s, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (CLO). They are long-distance migrants, forming large flocks as they fly 1600 to more than 4000 miles each way–among the longest migratory routes of any North American bird. According to CLO, Common Nighthawks migrate overland through Mexico and Central America, with many passing over Florida and Cuba before crossing the Gulf of Mexico to their wintering grounds in southern South America. Along the way, they stop in woodlands, coastal dunes, river valleys, farmlands, and marshes. Habitat loss, pesticides, and collisions with cars while the birds forage over highways at night are factors in their decline.

Nighthawks lay their eggs on gravel beaches, rocky outcrops, open ground, and forest floors, according to COL, and in cities, on flat gravel roofs. They do not build nests, relying instead on camouflage. When nesting on gravel roofs the eggs and nestlings may suffer predation from crows and birds of prey. A recent study in Conservation Physiology also found that increasing temperatures as a result of climate change are associated with high stress levels in nighthawk chicks.

New Hampshire Audubon has urged homeowners and others with flat roofs to create gravel nesting patches for urban nighthawks. The program, called “Project Nighthawk,” provides specific information on creating these patches. A link to their detailed handbook is here.

The common name goatsucker is based on ancient superstition, according to David Sibley, the renowned author-illustrator. Aristotle wrote about the alleged goat-sucking habits of these birds, and in 77 AD, Pliny penned this: “They be night-thieves, for all the day long they see not. Their manner is to come into the shepherds’ coats and goat pens, and to the goats’ udders presently they go and suck the milk at their teats. And look what udder is so milked, it giveth no more milk, but misliketh and falleth away afterward, and the goats become blind withal.

As Sibley notes, it is unclear if many people actually believed this, and the superstition faded centuries ago, despite the persistence of the nickname. We know with certainty that nighthawks eat only flying insects and have nothing to do with goats.

Despite their nocturnal habits and eerily wild calls, Common Nighthawks have adapted to cityscapes. A story in Audubon was titled “The Common Nighthawk is the Cool City Bird You’ve Been Missing.” In my highly urban Baltimore neighborhood, the birds pass through in flocks in late winter or early Spring, and late Summer or early Fall, apparently drawn to flying insects swarming the lights illuminating the rail yard. But they do not linger—their plaintive calls livening the night before moving on. Although nighthawks can be seen during the day, I have seen them here only after dark in silhouette as they glide above the lights.

Common Nighthawk (photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren, Wikimedia Commons)

As I write this they have already passed on—-and I may not hear them here again until late summer when they are on their return migration. But knowing that they have returned once again provides some assurance that–for now, at least—wild things persist as they have despite the heedless activities of man.