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Common Nighthawk

Photograph of Common Nighthawk
© Judd Patterson Photography

Scientific name: Chodeiles minor

New York Status: Special Concern
Federal Status: Not Listed


The common nighthawk, as its name would imply, is neither a hawk nor is it strictly nocturnal. A mottled gray, brown and black bird with large black eyes; it is distinguished from other members of the nightjar family primarily by its call which is a single, nasal peent. Measuring 8-10 inches, the common nighthawk is cryptically colored with a long, forked tail; long, pointed wings; and broad white wing bars that are visible during flight. It has a short, slightly decurved bill and a large, gaping mouth. Sexes are similar but the female has smaller white wing patches and lacks the white tail-stripe characteristic of the male.

map showing common nighthawk breeding range in north america
Common nighthawk range map from Birds of the World,
maintained by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Life History

A neotropical migrant, the common nighthawk has one of the longest migration routes of any North American bird. Commonly migrating in large flocks, it is a late arrival to breeding grounds in the spring, and makes an early departure in the fall. Females usually begin to arrive at their breeding grounds in small groups around late May and early June a few days before males.

Two eggs are laid directly on the ground and no nest is constructed. Incubation is performed entirely by the female who will leave the eggs or young unattended during the early morning and evening to feed. Young hatch after 18-20 days and are semi-precocial (semi-advanced at birth) with sparse patches of fluffy down. Both parents feed the young at dawn and dusk by regurgitating insects. Diet consists entirely of flying insects that are caught during flight.

Distribution and Habitat

The common nighthawk will nest on bare substrate such as sand, dirt, gravel, or bare rock. In urban areas they will commonly nest on the roofs of buildings. In New York, this species is a widespread but local breeder that utilizes a variety of open habitats that include coastal dunes and beaches, forest clearings, and gravel roof tops. Wintering habitat is not well documented but does include open areas similar to those used during the breeding season.


It is suspected that this species is experiencing declines throughout many parts of its breeding range including New York. However, it is important to note that many survey methods, including those used for the New York State Breeding Bird Atlases, are not conducive to the detection of this species. Local increases have been reported in some states (North Dakota, Utah and Vermont).

Map of Common Nighthawk in New York
Distribution of common nighthawk in New York from
1st and 2nd NYS Breeding Bird Atlas Records.

Management and Research Needs

Research is needed to evaluate the causes of decline for this species. Factors potentially contributing to this decline include habitat loss, pesticide use, and the switch from gravel roofs to rubbers roofs in many urban areas. Management practices such as placing gravel pads in the corners of non-gravel roofs and burning and clear cutting patches have had some success in attracting breeding common nighthawks. The wintering range and migration routes of this species are poorly understood and require further study.