Bird Lore: Common Nighthawk

The Common Nighthawk was a fairly common summer sight in Western Washington decades ago. It is now spotted irregularly in Puget Trough cities during migration, which is from late May into June. It probably passes over Edmonds each year in spring and fall migration, but does so in such small numbers that it is not often reported.

Edmonds sightings that we know of include one over a south Edmonds neighborhood, two in the vicinity of the Edmonds Marsh, one from Haines Wharf Park, one over a north Edmonds neighborhood, and most recently, one over a central Edmonds neighborhood. The local population is more abundant in Eastern Washington, but the Common Nighthawk can be seen reliably in the foothills of Snohomish County, often foraging in flight over clearcuts. It is distinctive for the white bar out past the bend in each wing. The white bar can be seen on both the upper and underwing. Evening is the optimal time to spot this species locally. This video shows a Common Nighthawk in flight, both at regular speed and in slow motion:

The Common Nighthawk can be found in open and semi-open areas. These include prairies, farmland, clearings, coniferous or deciduous forest, suburban areas and even city centers. Although this nighthawk is now uncommon in Western Washington urban areas, it might still be common in city centers elsewhere since this species can be found over most of the U.S. and Canada in summer.

It feeds mostly on flying insects that include mosquitoes, beetles, grasshoppers, flies, and moths. The Common Nighthawk forages mostly at dawn and dusk, feeding on the wing by scooping insects in its wide mouth. It feeds heavily on swarms of winged ants. The species will also feed at night around bright lights that attract insects, such as at smaller airports or industrial parks. This may change with ongoing conversion to LED lights, which attract far fewer insects.

The male Common Nighthawk engages in a courtship display flight. He circles and hovers high in the sky with stiff wingbeats and repeated calls. He then goes into a steep dive that ends with a boom. The boom sound is made by air rushing through its wing feathers. The male then lands near the female, spreads his tail and rocks back and forth while continuing to call. The pair selects a nest site on the ground such as open soil in a sandy location.

No nest is built by a nighthawk pair. The female lays her two eggs on the flat surface. She does most of the incubation for about 20 days. The incubating adult will shift its position during the day to keep the sun at its back. Both adults tend the young and feed them regurgitated insects. At about 21 days of age, the young birds will take their first flight.

The Common Nighthawk is a long-distance migrant as it winters in South America. The decline of this species in Puget Lowland urban and suburban areas may be due to nesting by gulls on flat roofs and the increased presence of predatory crows. The nighthawk was once referred to as goatsucker because of the myth that it used its wide mouth to suckle goats. The oldest Common Nighthawk of record was a female that was at least nine years of age when captured in an Ohio banding operation. The collective noun for a group of nighthawks is kettle.

The nasal peent calls of a Common Nighthawk in Chelan County, ending with a wing boom, can be heard here:

— By Carol Riddell

Carol Riddell manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.


  1. Wow, I grew up in the Midwest, and watching the nighthawks circle in the sky during summer sunsets is a strong memory. It ranks up there with the sound of cicadas on a hot, humid summer night. I didn’t know nighthawks were out here in the PNW, so I hope I get to see him (assuming, based on what’s said above about the courtship flight)!

  2. I love this bird. I was camping up by Mt Adam’s, it was at night and just beyond the camp fires light I kept hearing this noise. It sounded like brrrrrriippp. I kept cocking my head around to get a better listen. I soon grabbed my flash light to see what was the source of this sound. I soon discovered it was a Nighthawk. He would hover up high and when an insect would appear he would dive on it. The sound came from the air passing thru his tail feathers as he pulled out of the dive. Quite a sight to see.

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