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Common Nighthawks Over Fenway Park

Dear Bird Folks,

In one of your older columns you wrote that night-herons are sometimes spotted during night games at Fenway Park. Well, I was there last week and saw nighthawks flying high above the field. Is that unusual?

–Moe, Grafton, MA


I remember that, Moe,

Back in July 2001, Sarah, from Plymouth wrote in about seeing night-herons at a game. Now, eleven years later, you are asking another question about birds flying over Fenway. At first, I was surprised. I mean, who besides someone like me would pay all that money for tickets and then spend most of their time watching birds? Then it hit me. The 2001 team stunk and the 2012 addition is even worse. Sometimes looking for birds, even at night is far more interesting than watching what’s happening on the field. But what surprises me is that people are only seeing nighthawks and night-herons. The way this Red Sox team is playing you would think the most common birds hanging around Fenway would be vultures. I guess even vultures avoid things that are this rotten.

The name “nighthawk” can be confusing. It sounds like either an inner city gang member, an Edward Hopper painting or some kind of secret military aircraft (actually, I think that last two are real). The Common Nighthawk is a robin-size, insect eating bird that typically feeds in late evening. And oh, the nighthawks don’t have powerful talons and flesh-tearing beaks like hawks do…because they aren’t real hawks. In fact, they have weak feet and tiny beaks. To make up for their tiny beaks, nighthawks have huge mouths that they use to scoop-up insects while on the wing. And when they aren’t flying, nighthawks roost on the ground or along tree branches. The key word here is “along.” Due to their weak feet, nighthawks aren’t able to grasp branches the same way other birds do. Instead, nighthawks lay on the branch, like Alice’s Cheshire Cat does. Lying along a branch may seem awkward, but it actually gives the birds natural camouflage. The cryptically colored nighthawks blend in with the tree branch, which makes them extremely difficult to see. Don’t believe me? Run outside right now and count how many nighthawks you see in the trees in your yard. See what I mean?

Nighthawks may be difficult to see while they are roosting, but everything changes when the birds take flight. Like large swallows, nighthawks swoop through the sky, constantly flashing the white patches in their wings and relentlessly giving their insect-like buzzy call note. If you hear nighthawks calling or see them feeding around your yard, it’s a good thing. These birds eat huge numbers of insects, in particularly mosquitoes. It’s a popular misconception that Purple Martins eat lots of mosquitoes, but that’s not the case. Nighthawks, however, are mosquito vacuums. A lone nighthawk may consume as many as 500 of the little bloodsuckers in a single night. Wow! I like Bald Eagles and everything, but any bird that eats that many mosquitoes in a night would be my choice for our national bird. But I digress.

So why are insect-loving nighthawks hanging out at Fenway Park? Have they suddenly developed a taste for peanuts, Cracker Jack and really over-priced bad food? No, that’s not it. The Red Sox may not have a very good team right now, but they still play in an elegant ballpark with a classy name. Instead of having some embarrassing corporate name like Jiffy Lube Field or Chef Boy-Ar-Dee Stadium, Fenway is named after the Fens, a fairly extensive inner city wet lands. Insects love wetlands and birds love insects. But more importantly, nighthawks like cities. It seems strange, but it’s true. Historically, nighthawks nest on the ground in open areas. The birds’ coloring helps hide them from predators, but their camouflage isn’t perfect. Ground nesting birds often fall victim to human encroachment, passing snakes, hungry foxes and fat guys on ATVs. But instead of being chased away by human encroachment, nighthawks have simply adapted. Many of these birds have moved their nests to the tops of buildings, where they lay their eggs on gravel-covered roofs. Eggs laid on a roof are safe from snakes, foxes and are protected from all but the drunkest fat guys on ATVs.

Unfortunately, New England’s population of nighthawks has dropped dramatically in recent years and no one is sure why. As usual, over use of pesticides is one of the possible causes for the decline, but changes in building methods could also be part of the problem. The gravel roofs that the nighthawks loved so much have been replaced with rubber and PVC. No gravel roofs equal no birds. All is not lost, however. In 2007, a group of folks in New Hampshire started a program called “Project Nighthawk” in an effort to save these beneficial birds. Noting the success brought about by the nest boxes built for bluebirds and platforms for Ospreys, volunteers have begun placing gravel “nest patches” on the roofs of urban buildings. Good idea. If any states needs to encourage mosquito-eating birds, it’s New Hampshire.

Common Nighthawks aren’t nearly as common as they once were, Moe, but hopefully things will improve. Everyone is optimistic that the birds will begin using the artificial nest patches. If that happens it will be great news for nighthawks and trouble for me. Selling bluebird boxes is easy, but trying to convince customers to buy gravel roof patches will be a challenge. But I guess anything possible. After all, people are still buying Red Sox tickets.