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Lesser Nighthawk Life History



Lesser Nighthawks inhabit deserts, areas with scrubby vegetation, dry washes, and agricultural fields. They also seek out areas with swarming insects, such as those found around street lights or above lakes. They generally occur at lower elevations, but they have been reported up to 4,000 feet in the Chisos Mountains in Texas. On their wintering grounds in the lowlands of Central America, they use open woodlands, scrub, marshes, mangrove swamps, and beaches.

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Lesser Nighthawks fly through the air with their mouths wide open, eating anything that lands in it including files, mosquitoes, moths, june bugs, leafhoppers, and moths. Though nighthawks have a tiny bill, they have a big, very wide mouth that is lined with fine hairs to help trap insects. They primarily take insects in flight, but they also jump up to grab insects from the ground.

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Nest Placement


Female Lesser Nighthawks lay their eggs on the ground, often in areas with small pebbles. They tend to place the eggs on the north side of a small bush or overhanging branch either in full sun or partial shade. Sometimes they nest on rooftops.

Nest Description

Lesser Nighthawks don't build nests. Instead the female lays her eggs directly on the ground.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:2 eggs
Number of Broods:1-2 broods
Egg Length:1.0-1.2 in (2.5-3 cm)
Egg Width:0.7-0.9 in (1.8-2.2 cm)
Incubation Period:18-19 days
Nestling Period:21 days
Egg Description:

Clay-colored and speckled with fine gray and purple spots.

Condition at Hatching:

Nestlings hatch covered in down with their eyes open.

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Aerial Forager

Lesser Nighthawks patrol the skies in groups or by themselves. They alternate between snappy wingbeats, fast flutters, and short glides with the wings held in a V. They can maneuver with ease across the desert, frequently flying low over the ground and skimming the tops of low shrubs and trees. Nighthawks forage primarily at dawn and dusk and spend the rest of the day roosting on the ground or in trees and shrubs. On branches, they tend to perch horizontally, using the branch to support their bodies and to provide extra camouflage. Despite having tiny feet, they can walk along the ground or branches, which might help them move quietly to escape the desert heat. Lesser Nighthawks experience extreme heat and cold throughout their range. To minimize the effects of extreme heat, they open their mouths, which provides a cooling effect as air passes over. They also position themselves to face into the wind or away from the sun to regulate their body temperature. During periods of extreme cold, nighthawks can enter a period of inactivity known as torpor, in which the metabolic function slows down. Males start courting females in early spring or summer. Courting males puff up their white throat and pursue females in flight. Though males dive after females during courtship their wings do not produce a boom like the wings of Common Nighthawks. Pairs stay together during the breeding season and possibly longer. Females sit tight on the eggs, opting to fly away only when an intruder is practically on top of her.

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Low Concern

Lesser Nighthawks are locally common and their populations have increased by 15% since 1970, according to Partners in Flight. The estimated global breeding population is 12 million. The species rates an 8 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, which means it is not on the Partners in Flight Watch List and is a species of low conservation concern. Lesser Nighthawks, however are not easy to survey because of their nocturnal lifestyle so there is some uncertainty surrounding their population size and trends.

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Latta, Steven C. and Michael E. Baltz. (2012). Lesser Nighthawk (Chordeiles acutipennis), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Partners in Flight (2017). Avian Conservation Assessment Database. 2017.

Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, D. J. Ziolkowski Jr., K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon, and W. A. Link (2017). The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2015. Version 2.07.2017. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD, USA.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

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Learn more at Birds of the World