While his name sounds perhaps better suited to a comic book character, the Common Nighthawk is a member of a family called nightjars, peculiar little birds that seem to be an odd mix of owl, falcon, and whale. They hunt at dusk and into the evening like an owl; they’re roughly comparable to a kestrel in size, with long, curved wings; and as for the whale, well, they’re a bit big in the mouth. Just as the largest whales open wide their jaws and simply swim through schools of fish to catch their meals, the nighthawk opens its mouth to take prey midair, only stopping after they’ve caught their fill. Like a true nocturnal superhero, the tiny nighthawk even has an alias to protect his secret identity: they’re known to many people as bullbats, because the swooping nature of their attacks are very similar to the motions of bats who, coincidently, often hunt alongside them.
The Common Nighthawk is found throughout the United States, along with many other variations of nightjar, such as the Whip-poor-whil. They’re surprisingly easy to spot, if you take the time to look. Since they are drawn to clouds of flying insects, and since said insects are themselves drawn to bright lights, public areas like stadiums, parks, and any other place with manmade light sources are quite likely to attract them. Backyard lights, too, can draw them in. Interestingly, nighthawks are known to make quite a loud noise for such a little bird: they can produce an audible boom by flying sharply toward the ground and leveling off at the last instance. The passage of air along their wings is what creates the noise, and according to Cornell University, this boom is used for almost anything, from attracting a mate to scaring off intruders and even people. Whether or not you choose to be frightened, of course, is up to you, but that doesn’t make a big noise from a tiny bird any less impressive.
The fact that the Common Nighthawk and its nightjar kin are so prolific across North America demonstrates how effective a niche predator can be. A lot of birds eat insects, but almost all of them are diurnal; by adapting to the dark, nighthawks have mastered a domain most birds avoid. Being active during those hours severely limits the amount of competition they face, and in a way, it’s somewhat fitting that the heroic-sounding nighthawk spends a good portion of its evening hanging around with bats.
It’s not the biggest bird, nor the most impressive, and it’s especially not the most imposing. Yet the nighthawk and its relatives have found a unique place in the world, one suitable for a bird that seems a little bit hawk, a little bit owl, and inexplicably, a little bit whale. Pull away the mystery surrounding this darting silhouette, and you’ll find one of the most fascinating small birds to be seen at any time of day.