In Our Backyard: Common Nighthawk


Nestled within the picturesque landscape of British Columbia’s Thompson-Nicola watershed area lies a hidden gem of avian biodiversity—the common nighthawk (Chordeiles minor). With its enigmatic nature and captivating aerial acrobatics, this fascinating bird captivates the hearts of birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts alike.

The common nighthawk, although not a true hawk, exhibits distinctive hawk-like features. It possesses a slender body, long pointed wings, and a slightly forked tail. Its mottled brown and gray plumage, speckled with white patches, provides exceptional camouflage during the day when they roost on the ground or on tree branches. These birds are crepuscular, meaning they are most active during dawn and dusk when they embark on their mesmerizing aerial displays.

Image: Tom Murray, CC by NC 2.0

They are commonly found in open landscapes such as grasslands, forests, and meadows, often near water bodies. The region’s diverse ecosystems, encompassing the Thompson River, Nicola River, and their tributaries, offer an abundant supply of insects—the primary food source for common nighthawk.

Common nighthawks are aerial insectivores, specializing in catching insects on the wing. At twilight, they soar and swoop through the sky, employing their massive mouths to snatch flying insects mid-flight. Their aerobatic displays, punctuated by their distinctive “peent” calls, add an ethereal charm to the Thompson-Nicola landscape.

“All these birds that rely on insect populations are declining faster than any other group of birds in North America… Common nighthawks migrate from North to South America and back every year, which makes pinpointing reasons for decline particularly difficult.”

Elly Knight, University of Alberta.

In late summer, the common nighthawk undertake an incredible feat—their long-distance migration to South America. These birds embark on an arduous journey, covering thousands of kilometers, to reach wintering grounds in the Amazon rainforest. The Thompson-Nicola watershed area serves as an important stopover site for these migrants, providing crucial resources for refueling before their extensive journey.

A study led by Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and the University of Alberta tracked the 10,000km migratory route of the Common nighthawk.


Despite their remarkable adaptability and endurance, common nighthawk face several challenges that impact their populations. Habitat loss due to urbanization, agriculture, and deforestation poses a significant threat. These birds are ground nesters, laying their eggs on bare ground or gravel rooftops, making their nests vulnerable to disturbance and destruction. COSEWIC designated the common nighthawk as threatened in 2007.

Pesticide use negatively affects their primary food source—insects. Pesticides reduce insect populations, diminishing the available food supply for the nighthawks. Light pollution is another concern as it disrupts their feeding and reproductive behavior, leading to population decline.

As stewards of the environment, it is crucial to protect and preserve the habitats the common nighthawks rely on for breeding and migration.

“There’s lots of things that people can do to help aerial insectivores now, that are no-regrets actions, things like implementing integrated pest management practices on agricultural lands, retaining wetlands in agricultural landscapes and Prairie landscapes, and driving slow on gravel roads.”

Elly Knight, University of Alberta.

The common nighthawk is an enigmatic and captivating bird that enriches the biodiversity of the Thompson-Nicola watershed area. Their aerial displays, unique foraging techniques, and migratory patterns make them a fascinating species to observe and appreciate. Let’s come together to safeguard these remarkable birds and secure a future where they can continue to grace our skies.

Additional Resources

Featured image: Aaron Maizlish, CC by NC 2.0