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Migrating nighthawks fill the evening air

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By Sylvia Brockner

There is a small order of birds known as goatsuckers. The scientific name is the Caprimulgiformes, which comes from the Latin Caprimulgus, a milker of goats and forma or form.


This name comes from the old belief that these birds, which are often seen in low sweeping flight over meadows, were sucking the milk out of goats. There are not as many species in this order as there are in some other orders such as finches and warblers.
But there are a total of five families and 93 species, which are widespread around the world. The only species found in North America are the nightjar family or Caprimulgidae.
There are 67 species in this genus, several of which occur in the United States. They all have night calls, and some make booming sounds with their wings as they dive through the night skies after insects. Some say they are called nightjars because they jar the night with their sounds.
Long before I ever saw one of these strange birds, I knew of them because there was a picture of a potoo in my fifth-grade geography book. When I was in high school, we moved to Buffalo, and I discovered the common nighthawk was a common bird there.
They nested on flat gravel roofs and found plenty of food available in the sand flies that were attracted to the city lights. All of these birds are insect eaters, which are caught on the wing. They have large heads with tiny hooked beaks and a huge gape, which opens like a scoop shovel to catch insects. The common nighthawk has a vocal call, which is oft repeated “beent, beent, beent” beside the boom caused by their diving headfirst after insects.
Nighthawks were once very common and a small number were resident summer birds in this area. We also saw large flocks of nighthawks migrating down the valley every year, in mid- to late August on their way south for the winter.
In the last 50 years, they have declined, and I have not seen one locally for several years now. However, Sherman Wing had one in his backyard near Indian Hills recently. It is generally believed that they have declined, as so many insect-eating birds have, from consuming so much pesticide from eating insects that have been sprayed. The cause may be difficult to prove for the once-common nighthawk is no longer common.
The lesser nighthawk is still fairly common south of here. They prefer the more desert areas and therefore probably are less exposed to insecticides.
They are almost twins of the common nighthawk but are slightly smaller, and the white wing patch is a bit closer to the tip of the wing. The last time Bill and I were in Salida, there were many of them flying around the motel lights every evening.
Another member of the nightjar family that can be seen in this area is the poorwill. It has a two-part call that sounds like it was bemoaning its fate by repeatedly saying, “poor will, poor will, poor will.”
Both of these birds do not build a nest but place their eggs on the ground among stones or gravel where they are not easily seen. It is believed that the female does all of the incubation, but both parents work at the hard chore of feeding the young.
These birds are not generally found on the grassy plains but are found in the foothills below 8,000 feet where there are rocky outcroppings and in the open ponderosa pine and the pinyon-juniper forests.
We used to hear poorwills on Kinneys Peak, and Dieter Kamm found them nesting on Lone Peak. They may well be both places still, but my hearing is getting so diminished that I can’t hear them that far away.
The poorwill has a much shorter tail than the nighthawks, with white patches on the outer corners and has rounded wings with no white patches.
Right now is the time to look for migrant nighthawks heading south in larger evening flights, and no, they are not hawks and they do not suck goats milk. Perhaps nightjar is a better name.