Common nighthawk

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More names for this bird

Dakota: Piko

The Dakota and Anishinaabe were among the earliest people to name Minnesota’s plants and animals, as well as to understand them in relation to Minnesota’s climate and seasons. Those original names are still in use, and several are included on the Season Watch website. However, complete translations were not available.

Latin (or scientific name): Chordeiles minor

The scientific community has a convention of assigning agreed-upon Latin names to every kind of organism. Using scientific names helps people communicate confidently about the same organism and organize lifeforms based on how closely related they are.

Common nighthawk perched on a branch with bright blue sky background
Common nighthawk perched during daylight hours.
May 26, 2019, Sherburne County
Photo © fsadjadi, some rights reserved (CC-BY-NC)
iNaturalist observation

About the common nighthawk

  • The common nighthawk is a nocturnal bird that is larger than a robin but smaller than a crow.
  • It is black, gray, and buff with white patches on its wings, a tiny bill, and short legs.
  • Nighthawks mostly eat flying insects such as wasps, beetles, moths and flies. Occasionally they supplement their diet with small amounts of vegetation.
  • Nighthawks nest on the ground in open areas. This includes gravel rooftops in urban areas, as well as non-urban spaces such as logged forests, prairies, and grasslands.
  • They incubate their eggs anywhere from two to three weeks. Young leave the nest seventeen to eighteen days after hatching.
  • Fun fact: Nighthawks often take advantage of clouds of insects attracted to streetlamps, stadium lights, and other bright lights.
  • Common nighthawks migrate. Expand the "Migration animation" section below to learn more.

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Migration animation

Click the full-frame icon (lower right corner of video) to play at full size.

Video file

More about eBird's abundance animations

eBird data from 2006-2020. Estimated for 2020. Fink, D., T. Auer, A. Johnston, M. Strimas-Mackey, O. Robinson, S. Ligocki, W. Hochachka, L. Jaromczyk, C. Wood, I. Davies, M. Iliff, L. Seitz. 2021. eBird Status and Trends, Data Version: 2020; Released: 2021. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York.

Visual guide to phenology

Watch for changes in nighthawks' presence (or absence), abundance, and behaviors at different times of year. Also, pay attention to when young-of-year appear and develop.

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Note to observers

This page explains general clues to watch and listen for when observing common nighthawk phenology. However, this page does not explain how to identify this bird or collect data in a standardized way.

Common nighthawk flying low over water. Its body is dark with a narrow, long tail and white bands on its long wings.
Common nighthawk against a blue sky. White stripes on its long narrow wings are clearly visible.
Common nighthawk on a rocky outcropping, possibly sitting on eggs.
Two common nighthawk eggs on the ground with pine needles and fallen pine cones.
Common nighthawk adult and one chick are well camoflouged against the leaf littered ground.
Two common nighthawk chicks covered in down, their flight feathers are not fully developed.
One common nighthawk chick on the ground. Observed in the month of August.
About twenty common nighthawks flying against a dimming blue sky

Audio resources

When you hear a bird, the next step is to locate it and watch for behavioral clues to its life cycle stage or activities. Here are two recordings of sounds made by common nighthawks:

Audio file
Common nighthawk calls, April 19, 2021, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Recording by TBR ( CC0

In the recording below, buzzing sounds (at 0:04 and 0:15) are not vocalizations but rather the sound of air rushing through stiff wing feathers. Nighthawks make these sounds by diving toward the ground.

Audio file
Common nighthawks calling and diving, August 4, 2019, near Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Recording by Sunny ( CC BY-NC-SA 4.0


Graphs and historical data

Note: The Orientation Center provides a map, as well as information on reading graphs; interpreting summary statistics, who collected the data and how; and how to download datasets for independent exploration.

Itasca County

First flock of migrators (flying south)

  • Average: August 9 (occurred in 2008)
  • Earliest: August 21
  • Latest: September 1 (occurred in 2007)
Scatterplot showing common nighthawk phenology observations in Itasca County, Minnesota

Download this dataset (.csv file)