For the Birds Radio Program: Nighthawk

Original Air Date: June 23, 1989

Laura is taking care of an injured nighthawk, and it’s fascinating. 3:26 (Date confirmed)

Audio missing


(Recording of a Common Nighthawk)

Two weeks ago a friend of mine, who was working on a construction job in Lakewood Township, called me up about an injured nighthawk. It was an adult male who apparently broke his wing on a power line while he was doing his mating dance the night before. Both ends of the broken bone protruded through muscle and skin, and he was bleeding a lot. I didn’t have much hope for him, but I set the wing as well as I could and kept him quiet for a few hours.

When I checked him he was looking pretty perky, and I grew more hopeful. But I had to figure out how to feed him. Nighthawks aren’t hawks at all—they’re related to Whip-poor-wills and European Nightjars, and eat flying insects exclusively. I knew they had large mouths for this purpose, but I was amazed when I saw just how huge a mouth this guy had—and how little room for a brain was left in his head when he opened his beak. The bill itself is tiny and fragile, but when he opens it the sides of the mouth, which are soft and cartilaginous, form a huge gape.

But the problem was, he had never been fed by a human before. It didn’t take too long to figure out a gentle way of coaxing his extremely fragile mouth open and putting food in, and he seemed to quickly adapt to this new way of eating. He’s getting a mixture of Purina High-Pro dog food, Knox gelatin, bone meal, raisins, and ground apple, along with a generous helping of bird vitamins, mealworms, and any moths I can catch at my porch light.

The worst danger for any bird with a broken wing is from infection. The hollow center in many wing bones is filled with air sacs which directly attach to the lungs, and so many birds with broken bones end up dying of pneumonia. In order to prevent this, I called my vet and got a prescription for amoxycillin—the same pink liquid medicine my children take when they get ear infections. The nighthawk sips this quite well, though on my first clumsy attempt I dripped some onto his handsome white throat patch and now part of it is pink.

Assuming his wing heals properly, the splint will come off in three weeks. By then his muscles will be pretty weak—we’ll have to build up his flying skills again before he can be released. Fortunately the accident happened early enough in the season that he should be released well before it’s time to migrate to South America in late August.

This is my first experience in handling a nighthawk, but the bird has quickly become one of my absolute favorite species. I love Blue Jays for their sense of fun and adventure, but I love this bird for his quiet dignity and his gentle manners. He spends his time sitting quietly in the windowsill of my writing room. When I come over by him, he sidles up to me with the typical “Charlie Chaplin gait” peculiar to this species and actually sits on my lap. He’s so companionable that I’ll miss him heartily when I set him free. But nighthawks are birds of the night sky, and although he’s found himself in a strange new world for a short time, I can sense how much he yearns to go back to the starry sky.

(Recording of a Common Nighthawk)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”