Meet the Common Nighthawk: A Bird Known by the White Stripe on Its Wing

Written by Patrick Sather
Published: November 17, 2021
Image Credit iStock.com/M. Leonard Photography
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Many animals possess a singular identifying feature that people often associate with those animals. For example, when you think of a rhinoceros, you probably think of its horn. As for an elephant, you likely imagine its trunk. The list goes on and on, from a rattlesnake’s tail to a tiger’s stripes. Birds also possess unique features, such as a cockatoo’s mohawk or a pelican’s large bill. Some features, such as a crest or webbed feet, are fairly common, while others occur more infrequently. Among the many birds in the New World, there is one that may have caught your eye. You may have seen this particular bird flying through the air during the last minutes of daylight. It is identifiable by one singular feature, specifically, this bird spreads its wings in flight. Meet the common night, the bird known by the white stripe on its wing. 

The common nighthawk is a frequent sight in the Americas and possesses unique physical and behavioral traits. In this article, we’ll discuss the common nighthawk’s taxonomy, distribution, physical characteristics, diet, breeding behavior, vocalizations, and conservation status and importance. We’ll also answer a few frequently asked questions about the common nighthawk, the bird known by the white stripe on its wing. 

Taxonomy 

Bird known by the white stripe on its wing: Common Nighthawk
There are 9 recognized subspecies of common nighthawk.

iStock.com/SteveByland

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The common nighthawk (Chordeiles minor) is a member of the nightjar family Caprimulgidae. In Ancient Greek, its scientific name Chordeiles translates to “an evening dance with music.” Meanwhile, minor means “smaller” in Latin. As for the term nighthawk, it derives from a slang name for the European nightjar in 17th-century England. While originally thought to be inseparable from the whip-poor-will, scientists now consider them separate species. 

At this time, scientists currently recognize 9 subspecies of this bird known by the white stripe on its wing. They inclue C. m. panamensis, C. m. neotropicalis, C. m. howelli, C. m. hesperis, C. m. aserriensis, C. m. chapmani, C. m. sennetti, C. m. henryi, C. m. minor. Each of these subspecies typically ranges throughout its own section of the Americas, which aids in identification.

Distribution 

During the summer, common nighthawks breed throughout North America and Central America. You can find them as far north as southern Alaska and as far south as southern Mexico. Come winter, most common nighthawks migrate up to 4,200 miles to their wintering grounds in South America. While migrating, they travel in loose groups that can include several thousand individuals. However, some subspecies live in their same habitats year-round, such as those found in the Caribbean. Given its wide range, the common nighthawk represents the most widely distributed nighthawk species. It lives in a wide variety of habitats, including forests, grasslands, deserts, coastal areas, and urban areas. Unlike most birds, you can find them both at high and low elevations. In addition, the common nighthawk is one of the few birds that live in recently scorched forests. Overall, anywhere that you can find insects, you’re likely to find common nighthawks. 

Physical Characteristics

Bird known by the white stripe on its wing: Common Nighthawk
The common knighthawk’s features striped plumage and a distinctive white stripe on its wings.

iStock.com/EmeraldRaindrops

On average, common nighthawks measure 8.7 to 9.8 inches long with a wingspan of 20 to 24 inches. They sport a forked tail and long, pointed wings that allow them to make quick aerial maneuvers. Unlike other nightjars, nighthawks do not possess rictal bristles, which look like thin, stiff feathers near the beak. In addition, you can identify a common nighthawk from its small beak, short legs, and overall owlish appearance. Their plumage on the primary feathers appears dark, while the undertail coverts look white. Upon a casual review, their plumage appears striped with alternating bands of dark and white feathers. When perched, they typically lie parallel with a branch but also rest on the ground or on posts. 

Dusk and dawn represent the times you’re most likely to spot this bird known for the white stripe on its wing. Upon looking up, you’ll notice the white stripe near the edge of each wing. Common nighthawks fly in a bobbing, erratic fashion, and often get mistaken for bats at a far distance. This similarity has led some people to refer to them as bull bats, given their larger size and batlike flight. In addition, the common nighthawk bears a striking resemblance to the Antillean nighthawk. Many experts often confuse the two, which can only be differentiated based upon their calls. 

Diet

Bird known by the white stripe on its wing: Common Nighthawk
Common nighthawks will fly low over the water when drinking.

iStock.com/M. Leonard Photography

As an insectivore, the common nighthawk primarily consumes a wide variety of insects. You can see this bird known for the white stripe on its wing hunting at dusk or dawn. On rare occasions, common nighthawks will also hunt at night, but this is uncommon even on bright nights. Common nighthawks usually catch flying insects in midair and hunt at high altitudes or in open spaces. Due to their insectivorous diet, they also go by the name bugeaters, particularly in the American Midwest. Generally opportunistic hunters, common nighthawks will eat whatever they can catch. However, their favorite foods include mosquitos, moths, and grasshoppers, as well as dragonflies, flies, wasps, and beetles. They rely on their keen sight to spot prey and can fly up to 14.5 miles per hour in pursuit of their target. When drinking, they will fly low over a body of water and drink in mid-flight. 

Breeding Behavior

Bird known by the white stripe on its wing: Common Nighthawk
Common nighthawks do not build nests, and simply lay their eggs on the ground.

iStock.com/Jukka Jantunen

Unlike some other birds, common nighthawks typically only produce one clutch of eggs each breeding season. Typically, they mate for life and may reuse nests each year. When courting a female, a male common nighthawk will dive and beat its wings together. Upon copulating, the female will choose where to build their nest. Common nighthawks nest in various habitats including forests, clearings, scorched ground, or rocky outcrops. They do not build nests but instead lay their eggs directly on gravel or soft moss or lichen. On occasion, they will also build their nests on top of flat roofs in urban areas. Both females and males incubate the eggs, although females are the primary incubators. When not incubating, males will sit in a nearby tree or perch and keep watch over the nest. 

Vocalizations

Bird known by the white stripe on its wing: Common Nighthawk
Common nighthawks emit a peculiar screeching sound and also beat their wings to communicate.

iStock.com/gatito33

You can most often hear common nighthawks shortly after sunset. Their vocalizations and songs sound similar and are akin to a screeching peent or beernt sound. During the breeding seasons, males will emit a sound like auk when courting a female. Males also use their wings to create a booming sound during dives to impress potential mates. When defending their nests, females will emit a raspy sound. In addition, when defending their territory, males may beat their wings together or even dive at intruders. 

Conservation Status and Importance

Bird known by the white stripe on its wing: Common Nighthawk
Nebraska used to be known as the Bugeater State, which refers to a local name for nighthawks.

M. Leonard Photography/Shutterstock.com

Currently, the IUCN lists the common nighthawk as a species of Least Concern. That said, some local populations are in slow decline, largely due to habitat loss and predation. Since common nighthawks nest on flat surfaces, a lack of flat roofs in urban areas can affect their ability to breed. Furthermore, they also face threats from climate change, aerial hazards, and certain diseases and parasites. 

Given their widespread distribution, common nighthawks feature prominently in the local traditions of several areas. Nebraska used to be known as the Bugeater State due to its high number of common nighthawks. In addition, sports teams at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln used to go by the name Bugeaters. 

Frequently Asked Questions About Common Nighthawks

What animals prey on common nighthawks?

Due to their habit of nesting on the ground, several species prey on common nighthawks’ eggs. Predators include skunks, opossums, and raccoons, as well as domestic cats. In addition, several raptors prey on adult common nighthawks including eagles, peregrine falcons, hawks, and kestrels.

How long do common nighthawks live?

On average, common nighthawks live between 4 and 5 years in the wild. 

Meet the Common Nighthawk
Meet the common nighthawk, the bird known by the white stripe on its wing.
iStock.com/M. Leonard Photography
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