For the Birds Radio Program: Nighthawks

Original Air Date: July 1, 2003

Laura quotes from Bill from Ohio who has been looking into the decline of Common Nighthawks. (Date confirmed)

Audio missing


One of my most vivid memories of my first summer birding was standing in the parking lot of the Natural History Building at Michigan State University, watching a pair of nighthawks flying in the evening sky, the male occasionally plummeting toward the ground in a dramatic display. I’d never noticed nighthawks before, but when I visited my family in the Chicago suburb where I grew up, suddenly nighthawk calls were everywhere. When I moved to Duluth in 1981, it was almost impossible to go downtown or to UMD or the College of St. Scholastica in early morning or evening without hearing at least one of these splendid birds. I’d see nighthawks while waiting for the Fourth of July fireworks, while watching my kids playing soccer, when driving home from visiting my in-laws in Port Wing, Wisconsin. They lived up to their name, the Common Nighthawk.

I was thinking about this when a dear friend forwarded to me a sad post from Ohio. It began with lines from the Emily Dickinson poem, “When they come back”:

When they begin—if Robins may—
I always had a fear
I did not tell, it was their last Experiment
Last Year,

When it is May, if May return,
Had nobody a pang
Lest in a Face so beautiful
He might not look again?

The Ohio writer thought of the poem as he walked around at 5 am, listening for nighthawks, but again hearing none. He writes:

Yesterday I heard a biologist say we shouldn’t worry because the Breeding Bird Survey numbers for nighthawks in Ohio had been trending upward for years. But this spring, for the first time in 20 years, I can’t hear them in my neighborhood. Maybe I need to listen more carefully, but for all those years birds from at least two nest sites nearby could be heard without listening carefully. I wondered if the biologist had her numbers right. I checked the Breeding Bird Survey Website for trends for this species in Ohio. Just to be sure, I checked it again, then again, till I had checked five times, and each time I checked it the numbers had budged a little. Apparently results of this month’s Survey routes in Ohio are rolling in: within an hour, the trend number went from -8.18 to -8.17, then to to -8.10, then -8.09, and then -8.18 again, then minutes ago to -8.20. Note the minus signs.

In fact, overall the common nighthawk’s numbers have dropped steeply here, at least according to the Breeding Bird Survey. In other BBS tables one can find that it’s among the half-dozen most rapidly declining breeders in the southern Gt Lakes region, declining even more rapidly than black tern, ring-necked pheasant, vesper sparrow, or eastern meadowlark.

I don’t know if others who delight in hearing nighthawks as part of the sounds and spectacles of the night in their neighborhoods have missed them this year, or even if they miss them as much as I do. These singular subjective anecdotal data aren’t of much significance, anyway, right? And besides, no doubt the implacable requirements of natural selection–or, if you prefer, some deity, whether stern or loving, in the sky–are at play, part of the almighty marketplace of nature that only a sentimentalist or a sore loser would oppose. But as I walked around, a single insignificant data-point in the darkness covering North America, I did wonder if it’s only my local nighthawks who’ve failed to come to perpetuate their kind, or maybe not.

That was Bill from Ohio, and I’m Laura Erickson, speaking For the Birds.