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Common Nighthawk

Chordeiles minor ORDER: CAPRIMULGIFORMES FAMILY: CAPRIMULGIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

On warm summer evenings, Common Nighthawks roam the skies over treetops, grasslands, and cities. Their sharp, electric peent call is often the first clue they’re overhead. In the dim half-light, these long-winged birds fly in graceful loops, flashing white patches out past the bend of each wing as they chase insects. These fairly common but declining birds make no nest. Their young are so well camouflaged that they’re hard to find, and even the adults seem to vanish as soon as they land.

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Keys to identification Help

Owl-like
Owl-like
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Common Nighthawks are medium-sized, slender birds with very long, pointed wings and medium-long tails. Only the small tip of the bill is usually visible, and this combined with the large eye and short neck gives the bird a big-headed look.

  • Color Pattern

    Common Nighthawks are well camouflaged in gray, white, buff, and black. The long, dark wings have a striking white blaze about two-thirds of the way out to the tip. In flight, a V-shaped white throat patch contrasts with the rest of the bird’s mottled plumage.

  • Behavior

    Look for Common Nighthawks flying in looping patterns in mornings and evenings. During the day, they roost motionless on a tree branch, fencepost, or the ground and are very difficult to see. When migrating or feeding over insect-rich areas such as lakes or well-lit billboards, nighthawks may gather in large flocks. Their buzzy, American Woodcock-like peent call is distinctive.

  • Habitat

    Common Nighthawks are most visible when they forage on the wing over open areas near woods or wetlands. They nest on the ground in open areas such as gravel bars, forest clearings, coastal sand dunes, or sparsely vegetated grasslands.

Range Map Help

Common Nighthawk Range Map
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Field MarksHelp

  • Adult

    Common Nighthawk

    Adult
    • Very long, pointed wings
    • Slender body with large head and notched tail
    • Heavily barred underside
    • White bars near tips of wings
    • © Bill Bouton, Modoc NWR, California, June 2010
  • Adult

    Common Nighthawk

    Adult
    • Distinctive shape in flight with long, pointed wings
    • Slender body with large head
    • Heavily barred underside
    • White throat and white patches near tips of wings
    • © Bruno P., Great Meadows NWR, Massachusetts, August 2009
  • Adult

    Common Nighthawk

    Adult
    • Heavily marked camouflage pattern above
    • Long, pointed wings with white patch visible
    • Very small bill
    • White throat visible but less obvious on perched birds
    • © Cleber Ferreira, Lake County, Florida, May 2011
  • Adult

    Common Nighthawk

    Adult
    • Long, pointed wings extend past tip of tail
    • White patch on throat
    • Dark barring on breast and belly
    • Heavily marked above with camouflage pattern
    • © Greg Page, Paul Rushing Park, Texas, April 2010
  • Immature

    Common Nighthawk

    Immature
    • Heavily patterned above with long, pointed wings
    • Large head with small bill
    • Immature lacks white throat
    • Nest usually hidden among rocks or gravel on rooftops or in open woods
    • © Byard Miller, Keene, New Hampshire, August 2009
  • Adult

    Common Nighthawk

    Adult
    • Very long, pointed wings with white bars near tips
    • Shorter, notched tail
    • Heavily barred underside
    • White throat
    • © Kim Taylor, Belle Haven Park, Virginia, September 2011
  • Adult

    Common Nighthawk

    Adult
    • Distinctive shape in flight with long, pointed wings
    • Short, notched tail
    • Heavily barred underside
    • White patches near wing-tips and on throat
    • © J.M. Kosciw, Tolland, Connecticut, August 2011
  • Juvenile

    Common Nighthawk

    Juvenile
    • Heavily camouflaged
    • Large black eye
    • Small bill
    • © Victor Fazio, Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, Oklahoma, June 2004

Similar Species

Lesser Nighthawks of the southwestern U.S. are easiest to distinguish from Common Nighthawks by the white bar on the wings. In Lesser Nighthawks this mark is closer to the tip of the wing, leaving a dark equilateral triangle for the wingtip rather than the longer, isosceles triangle created by the white bar of a Common Nighthawk. Lesser Nighthawks are also typically buffier, with somewhat more rounded wings than Common Nighthawks. Antillean Nighthawks are sometimes seen in southern Florida. They are very similar to Common Nighthawks but usually have buffy undertail coverts that contrast with a grayish belly. Their kitty ki-dick calls are much more useful than plumage for identification since the calls are so different from the peent calls of Common Nighthawks. Whip-poor-wills and Chuck-will’s-widows are less active at dusk and more active at night than nighthawks. They tend to forage with fairly short, low flights compared to the wide-ranging, looping flights of Common Nighthawks. Whip-poor-wills and Chuck-will’s-widows do not have white marks in the wings or on the throat. In silhouette, Common Nighthawks have a similar shape to American Kestrels, but with a bigger head and a slightly notched tail. They also fly differently, with an erratic, looping flight, and they have conspicuous white bands in the wing that kestrels lack.

Regional Differences

Eastern birds are browner than those from the northern Great Plains, which are silvery gray overall.

Find This Bird

Common Nighthawks are easiest to see in flight at dawn and dusk as they forage for aerial insects. Pick a high overlook with a good view of a river, if possible. In towns, look for nighthawks over brightly lit areas such as billboards, stadium lights, and streetlights. Scan the darkening sky and you’ll likely find some bats zipping around with their frenzied flapping—but look for a larger, bounding, long-winged shape. If you don’t see one, listen for low, buzzy peent calls. If you are in an area with breeding nighthawks, pay attention for the bizarre booming noise of a territorial or courtship flight.