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Cape Codder Article Nighthawks

Dear Bird Folks:

This past Labor Day I was driving near Springfield, along the Mass Pike, when I spotted a massive flock of hawks or falcons swooping over the turnpike. There were hundreds of them darting all around like swallows. Do you have any idea what kind of hawks they were?
-Melinda, Truro

Nice Sighting, Melinda:

I’ll try to explain what you saw, but it won’t be easy, so try to stay with me. The birds you saw weren’t hawks, they were nighthawks. That’s right, Common Nighthawks, not hawk hawks. Nighthawks aren’t hawks at all and to add to the confusion, nighthawks are often seen during the day. Now I know what you are thinking. Actually, I have no idea what you are thinking. I don’t even know what I’m thinking half the time, so just go along with me. Why are they called nighthawks if they aren’t hawks and are out during the day?

Nighthawks belong to a group of birds called “goatsuckers.” Goatsuckers are a family of birds with huge mouths that fly around at night consuming massive amounts of flying insects. Our whippoorwill is another member of the goatsucker family. (Caution: Even though goatsuckers are really birds, you still might get slapped if you say it in front of your mother.) The name “goatsucker” refers to the legend that these birds somehow drank milk from goats. This weird legend was probably started in Europe, where they also believe in other fantasies like dragons, trolls and playing cricket for fun.

Are you still with me, Melinda, or have you given up and started thinking about trolls? Basically, nighthawks are like large swallows, that “hawk” insects at night, but also in the evening and on cloudy days. Nighthawks have little, tiny useless beaks, but enormous mouths. They fly around scooping up anything that will fit inside including giant moths, small birds and the occasional Frisbee, sometimes with one of those jumping dogs still attached. Mostly though, they just eat small insects such as mosquitos. A nighthawk can eat 500 mosquitoes a night, which is far more than a purple martin eats in a lifetime.

Nighthawks are one of the few birds that enjoy city life. They often nest on the flat gravel roofs of buildings. The lights of the city are also a benefit as yummy insects are attracted to the lights. It is not unusual to be walking down a busy city street on a summer’s night and hear the nasal “peent” call of a nighthawk flying high overhead. A few years ago I heard the calls of nighthawks as I was walking through an outdoor cafe in Quebec City. When I looked up to see the birds, I accidentally bumped into some local Quebec guy who was just about to sip his latte. As the man was wiping off his shirt, he said something to me in French, which I think was, “Have a nice trip, you good-looking-out-of-towner,” but I’m not sure.

Nighthawks are rather uncommon here on Cape Cod. If we are lucky, we may see a few on migration. However, in some areas of the state you can see thousands as they pass on their way south. Just as you observed, Melinda, the best place is along the Connecticut River, i.e., the Mass Pike near Springfield. The birds that you saw a few weeks ago in western Massachusetts may be headed as far south as Argentina. There they will rest for a few months and then once again work their way back to New England.

So keep your ears open the next time youa re walking down a city street on a summer’s night. You just may hear the nasal call of a nighthawk high overhead. However, if you see a guy with a coffee-stained shirt walking toward you, don’t mention my name.