Wildly Successful: The Nighthawk

Wildly Successful: Lessons from the Wild for Everyday Success

By Jim Knox

As summer’s abundance reluctantly ebbs, Connecticut’s creatures shift gears into high calorie mode, stoking up on the bounty of plants and animals to sustain them through the lean times of winter ahead. As August cedes to September, insects are finishing their ever so brief lives with a flourish of breeding and feeding. Such an all-you-can-eat buffet attracts diners from near and far. One special Connecticut resident prefers to take their meals on the wing.

The Nighthawk (Chordeiles minor) is neither a hawk, nor active at night. Frequently misidentified as a large bat or small raptor, this enigmatic creature is unknown to most residents of the Nutmeg State. Sleek and long winged, the Common Nighthawk is a member of the nightjar family of birds, which includes the better-known Whippoorwill. Like its cousin, it is crepuscular—active during dawn and dusk periods, an open ground nester and…an insectivore extraordinaire. 

In nature’s grand choreography of balance, creatures such as the Nighthawk zip at the vanguard of the predatory ranks. While insects—especially pollinators—are essential for all life on land, they breed like, well…cockroaches. Such fecundity fuels an enormous living engine. With an estimated one quintillion insects on our planet, such swift insectivores are essential to providing balance to the staggering diversity and multitude of their prey. Solitary predators, these acrobatic flyers slash and dash to capture their speedy quarry in mid-flight. This high protein diet in turn provides the fuel to sustain rapid, high maneuver flight.         

Nighthawks possess an array of adaptations conferring remarkable abilities which include; wings 2-2.5 times their contoured body length for high powered flight, a long, deeply notched tail for unmatched maneuverability, a gaping beak which scoops insects in midair, earth tone camouflage, masking their presence on ground nests and roosts, and large eyes to target and track small, swift prey.     

While their design is seemingly single-minded, there is another side to nature’s insect-powered rockets, their beauty. The Common Nighthawk’s scientific name is derived from ancient Greek and is roughly translated as, a dancer to music in the evening, referring to the bird’s acrobatic and often graceful flight. On the ground, the bird appears drab and inconspicuous, the perfect cryptic camouflage to avoid detection. Yet in flight, the Nighthawk’s plumage of fine charcoal barring silhouettes the bird’s form against the sky and its two white wing blazes flash in symmetry, boldly tracking its path far overhead on elegant, pointed wings. In this native creature, nature has proven once again that form plus function can equal beauty.

Like other aspects of the Nighthawk, its flight also masks a hidden side. The bird is capable of changing speed and direction in a fraction of a second, earning it the nickname of bullbat. Specifically, this refers to the bird’s unpredictable bat-like course changes interspersed by headlong, charging bull-like rushes. This signature diving rush of the males has been given a name—the boom. Employed as a courtship display for females, a territorial display for competitors or even a warning to intruders, humans and otherwise, the boom is extremely effective in capturing one’s attention. The sound is produced by the rush of air over the primary flight feathers, like wind through reeds or over a fluted surface. The acoustic effect is reminiscent of a truck passing at high speed. It is startling and can be executed within three feet of the ground surface or an intruder.    

Like so many other species named centuries ago, the Common Nighthawk, is not always common within its historic range, and in fact, has lost ground. With a decreasing population trend across its vast North American range, we search for answers. The culprits: land development, pesticide usage, auto collisions and climate shift. With mosquito borne diseases on the rise, we have never needed the Nighthawk’s superior bug zapping abilities more than today.   

What can we do to protect this amazing and beautiful species and keep it going strong in Connecticut? We can restrict pesticide application, plant native plants which attract native insects and vigorously protect and promote open space habitat that we value…and the Nighthawk needs to survive.

In the Nighthawk, we have a species which performs amazing feats. Our job is to provide it with the proper conditions to flourish. Incidentally, those are the same conditions which enable us to flourish. Nature seems to have a habit of pointing the way. Often, we simply need to look up from our daily routine and follow that path. Two hours before writing this sentence, I went out to watch my son’s team play their home football opener. Early in the first quarter, with dusk growing, I glimpsed a slim, dark silhouette zip far above the field to snatch a meal from the insects drawn to the stadium lights. The bird banked and dove into the buffet cloud again before wheeling toward open land to the west of the school. At that moment, the conservationist in me witnessed a key species fulfilling its biological role. The rest of me, marveled at the dancer to music in the evening sky.

Jim Knox is a graduate of Cornell University and serves as Curator of Education at the Beardsley Zoo. 

As the writer and host for television’s Wild Zoofari and as an on-camera wildlife expert for The Today Show, The CBS Early Show and Fox News, Jim has shared his knowledge of, and passion for wildlife with millions of viewers. Jim has been featured in The New York Times and is a TED Talk,  corporate, and keynote presenter helping audiences put lessons from wildlife into practice in their everyday lives. In Greenwich, Jim is a science advisor for The Bruce Museum and a columnist for the Greenwich Sentinel.

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