Wild Ideas: An old friend, back in the twilight

A Common Nighthawk (Chordeilis minor), with its mottled feathers, is easily camouflaged when roosting. Photo by Gavin Keefe Schaefer.

A recent question about the name of my company, Nighthawk Communications, brought to mind hot summer nights in Wyoming and one warm, damp spring evening here in Rappahannock County.

That evening in Rappahannock, as I was walking my dog through a meadow where I lived, I saw a vague silhouette careening through the sky in the twilight. Because of its size, I thought at first it was a small hawk. However, not only was it late in the day for those diurnal hunters, the flight pattern and wing outline were all wrong, too. The wings formed a crescent and, when the bird finally swooped over my head, I saw in the dying light a dim flash of white bars on the underside of the wings, which clinched the identification — a Common Nighthawk (Chordeiles minor).

I could hardly believe my eyes. After all these years of being away from the Northern Plains and leaving that life behind, I suddenly felt the two worlds were joined in the flight of this interesting bird.

In the early 1980s, after I’d moved from Virginia to Montana and then Wyoming, I joined with a graphic artist to form a company that offered photography, graphics and writing. As my partner and I were both night creatures and offered quick turnaround to clients, often working all night, we wanted a name that would put that message across and also root us in Wyoming.

Service Reproduction of a painting of the Common Nighthawk in flight. Courtesy Bob Hines/United States Fish and Wildlife.

I came up with “Nighthawk Studios,” because of the double meaning “Nighthawk” had there. Flocks of these fast-moving birds would part in waves before my car’s headlights at dusk on dusty country roads as they dived down after the insects the lights attracted. “Nighthawk” was also the term used for the drover who, during cattle drives, kept watch over the herd at night. I had enjoyed seeing plenty of the birds and had been on enough cattle drives that the name had a lot of resonance for me and, I hoped, for our local clients.

My partner eventually moved away, and we dissolved the business. However, I kept the name for my own writing and photography business, changing it to “Nighthawk Communications.”

The Common Nighthawk is in the “goatsucker” family — an ugly moniker for such a lovely bird. The name came from the misplaced notion that these birds sucked the milk from goats at night. How that myth got started is hard to imagine. This bird family, also called “nightjar,” comprises 70 species around the world. The Whip-Poor-Will (Caprimulgus vociferus ), more often heard than seen, also belongs to the family.

The Common Nighthawk is a summer resident throughout the United States. Like other goatsuckers, nighthawks feed mainly at dusk and dawn. Their flight seems erratic — long sweeps, often high in the sky, accented by sudden dives as they spot an insect. Their dark-colored, mottled feathers let them blend into the twilight, with only a flash of white bars on the undersides of their wings, near the tips, likely to catch attention.

Like their fellow nocturnal hunters, owls, nighthawks’ wing feathers have evolved to allow quiet flight. However, during courtship males work against this trait by clapping their wings together loudly, creating a dynamic “boom” to attract females.

At nine-and-a-half inches, Chordeiles minor is easily distinguished in flight from swallows, the more common insectivorous birds flying late in the day. According to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology “All About Birds” Web site (allaboutbirds.org), its white wing patches and erratic flight also make it look like “a big bat with headlights,” earning it the name of “bullbat” in some areas.

By day nighthawks roost quietly on the ground or lengthwise along tree branches, their coloring offering good camouflage against predators. Like other goatsuckers, nighthawks have rather large mouths. Their call, which is not that distinctive, is characterized by “All About Birds” as “a nasal ‘peent.’”

In Wyoming, nighthawks seem to overcome their basically solitary nature and flock together, creating mesmerizing spirals sweeping up and down the prairie, particularly along the roads. Nighthawks will also flock up to migrate to South America for the winter.
A cryptic species, Chordeilis minor’s reproductive habits are not well understood. According to “The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Ornithology,” they are believed to be monogamous and can be dimorphic (having male and female characteristics). They generally lay their eggs on bare ground or on slightly raised surfaces, such as tree stumps.

Although they are common to Virginia, I had never seen a nighthawk before I moved to the Northern Plains nor after I came home — until that evening in Rappahannock seven years ago. I haven’t seen any since, but I have on occasion at dusk heard a whir of wings go by and glimpsed the outline of a bird that is the right size. It brings back memories of that rainy night in a Virginia meadow and the many summer nights driving the back roads of Wyoming.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 310 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”