Common NighthawkChordeiles minor (Forster)
Status Uncommon in summer, fairly common transient. Breeds. Usually arrives in May (average 18 May, earliest 22 April). Birds are sometimes reported as heard much earlier, but this undoubtedly represents confusion with the American Woodcock (see Remarks). During breeding season, only a few are found in urban areas; most seem to prefer clearings and barren outcrop areas in forested land. Much larger numbers occur during fall migration, probably augmented from outside the province, generally beginning in late July (average date of first flocks 30 July, earliest 20 July). Flocks of hundreds are sometimes reported in August and Sarah MacLean observed an estimated 10,000 or more over Highway 4 on Cape Breton Island on 25 August 1968. The latest sightings generally occur in September or early October (average 22 September, latest 20 October).
Description Length: 22-25 cm. Adult male: Upperparts and breast irregularly patterned with black, brown, buff and white; primaries blackish, each with a transverse white bar conspicuous in flight; tail black with bars of creamy buff and a white band near the end; prominent white patch on throat; belly white, barred with black, often with buffy tinge. Adult female: Similar but throat patch is cinnamon instead of white, and white marks on tail are lacking.
Breeding Nest: None worthy of the name. Formerly, eggs were laid usually on the bare ground, with a preference being shown for freshly burned-over areas. In recent decades there has been a growing tendency to resort to the gravelled roofs of flattopped buildings. For instance, during the summer of 1955 the roofs of six such buildings in Wolfville, all that were suitable, were used as nest sites by nighthawks. Only one pair to a roof is customary. Eggs: 2; white, evenly and thickly marked with fine grayish-brown speckles. Laying begins during the first part of June. A set of eggs examined on 20 June 1918 was fresh; another on 15 June 1915 showed slight traces of incubation. A parent with two well-developed young was seen on the roof of a local bank in Wolfville on 6 July 1942.
Range Breeds from the Yukon east to Nova Scotia, and in the east as far south as Georgia, southern Florida and the West Indies. Winters in South America as far south as Argentina.
Remarks About the turn of the present century, it was common practice to use these birds as targets during the fall migrations and large numbers were shot each year. Protective legislation, supported by growing public sentiment in favour of bird protection, soon brought this wanton killing to an end.
When it perches on a limb or fence rail, its position is almost invariably lengthwise, supposedly because its feet are too weak to maintain a balance were it to attempt to perch as other birds do. On 22 June 1963, however, I saw one perched cross-wise on a large elm limb 6-8 cm in diameter. Another nighthawk suddenly appeared and swooped down at the perched bird, which quickly changed its position to normal, raising its head as though to counter the hostile gesture of the bird in flight. Watching this "play," it seemed as though the perched bird were being reprimanded for having violated the parking custom common to the species. Charles R.K. Allen tells of once having seen a nighthawk trying to alight on a telephone wire.
Its common call is a short, harsh peent, suggesting to some listeners the ground note of the woodcock. This call usually is given in flight but not uncommonly when perched. In the latter case it is heard only intermittently, with marked irregularity. The loud booming sound characteristic of the species is produced by air rushing through the stiff outer primary feathers of its wings as it abruptly swerves upward following a sudden downward swoop when flying at higher altitudes.
It should be mentioned that this bird, despite its name, is not in any way related to hawks. Its feeding habits are similar to those of swallows and swifts, for its fare is made up wholly of insects it captures while flying. It does often fly at night, making the first part of its name quite appropriate. It is also sometimes called a "mosquito hawk."
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