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Fly By Night: The return of the nighthawk

Two nestling nighthawks in "nest." Our common nighthawks are back, but a little over two weeks late. Birds arriving "back home" late, in lesser numbers-or



Two nestling nighthawks in "nest." Our common nighthawks are back, but a little over two weeks late. Birds arriving "back home" late, in lesser numbers-or not at all-is worrisome these days. With the mounting evidence of peculiarities in the natural world around us attributable to global warming it's a little scary when birds like nighthawks are late coming back "home" to nest.

Nighthawks devour tons and tons of insects for a living, and they're not confined to any one continent while doing it. They raise babies in North America in summer, but as soon as the kids are on the wing, they head out for Brazil and other points south.

Nighthawks are a mysterious and often misunderstood bird that is referred to by a variety of misleading names such as "goatsucker," "bull bat," "night jar," and "mosquito hawk." They have a 12-inch wingspan, are shaped like boomerangs and very agile in flight. The fact that they appear at night likely accounts for the name "bull bat." If you can smoke that one out, you're a better man than I, Gunga Din.

"Goat sucker" is a little easier to figure out. The origin of this misnomer is traced back to when superstitious goat herders observed nighthawks flying above their goats in the evening with their large mouths agape. When the shepherds gathered around the campfire to drink wine and tell stories, they initiated the myth that these large-mouthed birds were sucking milk from the goats. Yeah, and elephants can fly...

Actually, nighthawks use their huge, gaping mouths to feed on insects flushed from the ground into the air by the goats' movements. Honest! If you could see the nighthawk's gaping mouth up close, as they zip by at dawn and dusk, scooping insects out of the air, you'd notice the extra large mouth is fringed with stiff bristles to aid in capturing flying insects.

The common name "nighthawk" is also a misuse of the English language; they are not even closely related to raptors, which is from the Latin "to seize." The fact is: a nighthawk's feet are so useless that it can't perch on a limb or wire. In the biological picture, nighthawks are more related to swifts and swallows.

Back in the early days of "bird-watching," which has since evolved into "birding," many of the watchers carried a .410 shotgun and killed as many birds as they could. Butterfly collectors did the same thing, but with nets. Back then, scientists wanted to know everything they could learn about the nature of nature, so they shot ("collected") birds and cut them open to study the internal workings. It was during those early investigations that ornithologists documented over 500 mosquitoes in the stomachs of individual nighthawks, hence the name, "mosquito hawks."

In the scientific world, nighthawks are classified in the Genus, Chordeiles, which is derived from two Greek words, chorde, meaning a stringed instrument and deile, meaning evening. This is in reference to the sound that male nighthawks make in the evening when they go into a nose-dive from several hundred feet in the air, then just before crashing, abruptly flare their wings, and gracefully glide upward. While doing so, the rush of air through the wing feathers creates a loud booming sound - and the lady nighthawks fall for it, hook-line-and-sinker.

Like the common Killdeer, nighthawks nest on the ground. The term, "nest" does not-in any way-constitute the presence of sticks, grass or any substrate to hold eggs; they just do it plain, "on the ground." The color of the eggs is soot and tree bark, as is the downy plumage of the young. It is no exaggeration to say it's quite difficult to see eggs or young, even on your knees looking for them. You will often not see the babies (I can't call them "nestlings" for there is no nest) unless they open their eyes, and then you will be startled! Their eyes are like brilliant, black opals.

So, if you are out off-trail exploring in Cascade foothills, please be careful where you step, a female nighthawk incubating eggs is also hard to see.

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