A Strange Common Nighthawk Behavior

This was one of the more bizarre bird behaviors I’ve witnessed.

One early morning on Antelope Island in September of 2008 I decided to break from my typical routine on the island and make the short drive up to Buffalo Point. I seldom go up there because for me that area has rarely been productive for birds but on this morning I pretty much had the island to myself (there was no other traffic) so I wanted to see if I could find something interesting to photograph that hadn’t already been disturbed by vehicles or people.

I had quite the surprise in store for me.


1/1000, f/9, ISO 400, Canon 40D, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS USM + EF 1.4 Extender, not baited, set up or called in

A little more than half way up the hill I found this Common Nighthawk on the road. It was alive (not roadkill as I originally feared) and it seemed obvious that it had deliberately oriented its body lengthwise along the newly painted stripe on the south edge of the road. This species is well known for orienting its body lengthwise on branches and other linear perches which allows it to take full advantage of its cryptic coloration by making its body shape conform to that of its perch.

In my ignorance of nighthawk behavior back then I was concerned that it might be injured or even stuck to the new-looking paint so I approached it very closely to try to make the bird fly off before another vehicle came up the hill and made roadkill out of it. But the bird simply would not fly. I crouched down and put my hand within about 6″ of its face but the bird just watched me for a few moments and then actually closed its eyes as if it were sleeping.

It was beginning to look like it might be injured or sick and I might need to “rescue” it but I was hoping to avoid that if at all possible. Something told me get back in my pickup, drive the 100 yards or so up to the parking lot and immediately come back down so I could “think” about what I was going to do on the way down.

By the time I returned to the spot about two minutes later the nighthawk was gone.

I suspect this behavior was due to deeply ingrained instinct – to orient itself lengthwise on its chosen roosting spot (in this case the paint stripe) and to avoid movement or even flying off and instead rely on its cryptic coloration and body shape along the stripe to hide it from the potential threat (me). When that threat was gone the nighthawk flew off.

I find bird behaviors endlessly fascinating.


Note: I posted a different image of this bird way back in March of 2013.


42 comments to A Strange Common Nighthawk Behavior

  • Rima Biswas

    Good morning Mr. Dudley! It is a pleasure to see and read your experience. My dad reads your blog almost everyday (in India), and he is grateful to you for writing these wonderful stories. He shared his experience regarding the common nightjar he discovered in his town in India as a kid. I am copying his words here,
    “Now, see the Feathered Photography dt. 16.04.17 of a Common Nighthawk by Mr. Ron Dudley. It reminded me of my boyhood days when hearing a loud-rhythmic-repetitive-sound of a bird in the evening in a bushy-jungle of a neighbour, I searched the jungle inch by inch only to find nothing! But I continued it the next morning and what a surprise it was! I found a crow-size bird as in the pic. of Mr. Dudley roosting on a dead-broken bamboo perfectly camouflaged with its color & the surroundings! Its eyelids were closed so I moved towards it slowly and quietly within 3 to 4ft of it. It didn’t open its eyes and remained motionless ignoring my presence. I left the place and came to the spot secretly next afternoon to be quite sure that the sound I hear in the evening and the bird sitting on the bamboo is the same & it makes that sound. So from a distance I found the bird and reached nearer to it almost crawling through the shrubs. I waited patiently and then at the time of dusk, at last the bird opened its mouth with the same tone for which I was waiting so eagerly for long hours. It flew off after a while & I also came back home.But the episode thrilled me a lot. I came to know afterwards that it was called “RAT CHAWRA” locally or the Common Nightjar. The pics. of Mr. Dudley brought my boyhood days in vision once again with immense mental pleasure. Thank to him a lot.”

  • Very interesting post and bird behavior. I never saw one of them before.

  • Levi V.

    Good picture!
    I have only ever seen nighthawks once, and when I did I saw a whole lot of them. I was sitting on a boulder in the mountains 2 hours east of here, watching the sunset, and then suddenly dozens of nighthawks started flying around. They are very strange looking, and I had no idea what they were. A friend was wondering if they were birds of prey (which they look a lot like) and I even thought they were bats at first. When I checked the bird book back in camp it said common nighthawks are only found as far south as death valley, and lesser nighthawks can be found around there. I don’t know enough to know the difference, but to me it doesn’t really matter. Better to just enjoy it as a bird than a fancy name.

    • I’ve had similar experiences with nighthawks in the mountains, Levi. They’re fun to watch, partly because they’re so skilled in flight.

      • Laura Culley

        I used to enjoy watching them work a shopping mall’s lights after hours. There was a treasure trove of bugs for their dining and watching their fancy flying delighted me. I’m SO easily amused and that’s what I’d do on Saturday nights…giggle!

  • Common? Nothing common about them here. Bird naming often strikes me as short-sighted and sometimes plain silly. I wonder whether the first people to see the Passenger Pigeon called it the Common Passenger Pigeon.
    Climbing down from my precarious perch on the soap box, I loved this.
    And am so grateful that there was a happy ending.
    Bird behaviour is endlessly fascinating isn’t it? And often a mystery (to us at least).

    • Yeah, this species in particular is “uncommon” in so many of its adaptations that the “common” moniker seems particularly inappropriate for them.

    • Laura Culley

      EC, I have the same visceral reaction to the word “common” when it’s applied to birds! DARGH! What are people thinking? The word common has so many negative baggage meanings. Don’t ever call Mariah a common redtail hawk. I just have to thwap you upside the head when that happens!

  • Laura Culley

    Oh MY! What a dangerous place to roost! I’m really surprised that the bird allowed you to get that close without giving up on their camo in that specific location. That said, it would be part of that don’t-ever-panic survival strategy.
    Like April, I learned most of what I know about nighthawks from rehab. I was amazed when that tiny beak opened up to a HUGE mouth!
    It’s good to be back after the next-to-last stage of this epic move–the trip to Fort Worth to gather up the rest of my belongings. With the rebuilding of the mews accomplished, all that’s left is to unpack all those boxes (most of which are filled with my beloved books). What a joy to be reunited with them again!
    I’m also delighted to be back to your most excellent photography! I really enjoyed the redtail and Kestrel series–you knew that, I’m sure 🙂 THANK YOU!

    • Welcome back, Laura. That move of yours has obviously been an arduous, drawn out process.

      • Laura Culley

        Yes, it has been arduous, but on the upside, I’ve gotten to see a lot of this country and meet up with a lot of friends. I’m delighted to have all my stuff in one place again, but the unpacking and organizing part is moving slowly. But the dogs and birds are happy, so I’m happy!

        • Welcome back Laura. You have been missed.

          • Laura Culley

            Thanks EC! I always have the pesky recovery time, which is getting longer and longer each time I overdo things. Now all I have to do is unpack all the boxes, which is a slow process for me. But some time soon, I’ll have them all unpacked and their contents all organized again. As Mia says, “Life is good!”

  • Linda Civey

    They are amazing creatures.

  • Chris Sanborn

    A strangely beautiful bird … and a very strange place to hang out even if only for a little while. So lucky it was you who drove up on it, or it might well have suffered a very different fate. We don’t have nighthawks here, but not sure I’d ever see one even if we did — that’s some amazing camouflage! Reminds me of screech owls roosting in their tree cavities. Thanks for the “oldie but goodie” post today, Ron.

  • Dick Harlow

    Ah to be so close and get such a fantastic shot! Align themselves along a branch, that I’ve seen, but a white line in a road? Really? Without that picture who would have believed they would do such a thing? Great shot and their behavior along branches now makes sense with what this one did in the road.
    Thanks for sharing.

  • Jorge H. Oliveira

    Fascinating bird. I never saw one in my life.

    We name it “Noitibó”.

    Thanks for sharing.

  • George Hollis

    Yes, Nighthawks are unusual… I witnessed a mass daytime migration of them in northern Ky a few years ago. I saw hundreds filtering through the landscape over the course of a day or two, flying within a few feet of the ground. (I think the season was mid-spring, but it was a few years ago.)

  • April Olson

    Night Hawks and Poor Wills are often ground nesters and roosters. They try to blend into pebbly ground or look like a dead snag on a log or branch. They will freeze close their eyes and usually point their beak slightly up in order to look like a broken branch. They have soft owl like feathers and quiet flight. Their legs are very short and they have a feather comb for grooming on one of their toes. I learned most of this while working with them in rehab. When we have them in the rehab they move very little and we have to feed them by hand. They can not eat on their own in a cage, they catch their prey in flight like bats. They have a tiny beak but a hug net like mouth when they open it for catching insects in flight. We have them in populated areas but sadly due to ground nesting behavior they fall prey to cats often.

    So glad you found one and were able to photograph it. It is in a strange place, good you bothered it so it did not get run over. I doubt it would have moved for an on coming car.

  • Ron Blanton

    He was baiting you closer Ron, then evidently realized you were too big to take down. That or the white lines just got to him like they do all of us on long trips. I could be over thinking this.

  • Patty Chadwick

    When Summer camping with Lakota friends in Rockes, I’ve almost stepped on a couple of these birds….they were huddled down in some rocks and wispy grass and blended right in.. The first couple of times, I had to be warned by someone with sharper eyes…HAPPY EASTER, EVERYONE!

  • Linda Berkemeier

    Maybe the white stripe was warmer.

  • jim hutchison

    Your nighthawk behavior deduction re the highway stripe could be correct, but other factors may well have been involved. In Oregon I have seen nighthawks killed at dusk by cars on paved backroads where there was no highway stripe. And the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (on Google) states that: “Nighthawks are vulnerable to being hit by cars as they forage over roads or roost on roadways at night.”

    • Yes, those things do happen with nighthawks, Jim. In this case I’m quite sure this bird was healthy, uninjured and acting “normally” for the species.

  • Elmer Deloso

    Thanks for the lesson.

  • Judy Gusick

    Fascinating! We have nighthawks here and they do orient themselves to be parallel to branches – they blend in very well! The white stripe, of course, doesn’t offer the same camouflage tho probably fortunate it was on the stripe as it certainly would have blended well with the road and would have possibly ended up as road kill. Great shot of the nighthawk, Ron.

    • Judy, it was amazing that I even spotted this bird. Before I got out of my pickup the first time I remember looking away as I parked and then I had a hard time finding it again when I looked back.

  • Marty K

    Wow! That’s really strange! I would have done the same thing to make sure it was OK, although I would probably not have been as patient as you were. You’re a “good egg.” 😉 Eerie, though, how well the bird matches the asphalt. You’re right — birds are pretty cool.

    • Marty, I don’t know if it was due to my patience or my reluctance to deal with rescuing the bird. Back then I wasn’t even aware of any rehab facilities in my area so I had no idea what I’d do with it if I picked it up. All I knew is that I couldn’t leave it there if it was injured or stuck in the possibly fresh paint.