How to Identify a Nighthawk

How to Identify a Nighthawk
You've probably heard the common nighthawk without ever seeing the bird. It is active around dawn and dusk, flying about and feeding on insects. Despite its name, it can be spotted in the middle of the day as well. The nighthawk is in the family of goatsuckers, related to the whippoorwill and the Chuck-wills-widow, two other birds that are heard but rarely seen.


Difficulty: Challenging

How to Identify a Nighthawk

Things You’ll Need:
  • Bird guide
  • Bird guide
Step 1
The nighthawk has long wings and a short body and legs. The bill is very small but the eyes are big. The feathers are a mottled combination of black and gray with dirty white mixed in. The wings have white bars toward the end that are easily seen when the nighthawk flies. There is also a patch of white across the bird's throat. The nighthawk nests on the ground, but its protective coloration allows it to escape detection.
Step 2
Listen for the call of the nighthawk, especially during mating season. This call sounds like a shrill "peeeent" and can be heard as the nighthawk wheels about in the air near a prospective mate. Listen at dawn or around dusk when this display is most likely to occur.
Step 3
Be aware that the nighthawk will make another much more unexpected sound while it flies. Part of its mating ritual, as well as the way it frightens off predators from its nesting site, is to suddenly descend from high up at great speeds. A few feet from the ground, the plummeting bird will break its descent with its wings; the air that flows through its feathers as this happens makes a sound best described as when you blow across a bottle top.
Step 4
Check gravel roofs. These birds are common in cities, where they will actually make their nests and raise their young on the gravel roofs commonly found on buildings such as schools and hospitals. The nighthawk also will live in the country in open meadows and near forests, eating a steady diet of insects.
Step 5
Pay attention to birds skimming over the surface of a pond, river or lake. Nighthawks drink while they fly, dipping into the water for a mouthful. If you are attentive you may see one, but remember that birds such as swallows also drink using this method.

Don't Miss a Thing!

All our latest outdoor content delivered to your inbox once a week.



We promise to keep your email address safe and secure.