For the Birds Radio Program: Nighthawk

Original Air Date: June 15, 1992

How do you care for a nighthawk with a major head wound? (Date confirmed)

Audio missing


Going to the Duluth International Airport last week to pick up an injured nighthawk was a new experience for me. But it wasn’t nearly as surprising as dealing with the poor bird once she arrived. Never before had I seen a bird with such a massive head wound‚she could neither see nor hear on her right side. Her eyelid was torn and her eye itself was damaged. Millions of birds are killed on our nation’s highways every year, including a disproportionate number of nighthawks. Nighthawks are actually drawn to the paths of vehicles at night, chasing insects that are attracted to the headlight beams. Nighthawks are actually drawn to the paths of vehicles at night, chasing insects that are attracted to the headlight beams. Nighthawks look big in flight, but the weigh only 2 ounces—they don’t stand a chance even against a Yugo. Most nighthawks that survive car accidents are left with broken bones. This little one had probably snagged the antenna—the only damage was to the side of her head right at the back of the eye. The car driver probably never even noticed her.

Nighthawks have a pea-sized brain well behind the eyes, so I was fairly confident that she didn’t have brain damage. But the eyes take up a good third of the skull of a nighthawk—such vital organis are obviously not dispensable.

The first day I kept her on fluids and electrolytes, with just a small amount of food. I didn’t expect her to survive the night, but there she was in the morning, looking no worse if no better. So I brought her to my veterinarian, Larry Anderson, who looked over the eye and found no serious damage to the cornea. We started her on antibiotic eyedrops and hoped for the best.

So far she hasn’t shown any improvement, though she hasn’t gotten any worse, either. If I was dealing with a robin or crow with this kind of injury, I’d automatically decide that euthanizing was the best choice—most birds get so agitated with a serious injury that they hurt themselves or are consumed with fear, and the slim chance of recovery isn’t worth the trauma that the bird goes through in the attempt. But nighthawks, for all their tiny brain size, figure out very quickly that I’m trying to help. Every one of the dozens of nighthawks I’ve cared for over the years has responded to a gentle touch and soft words within minutes, and I’ve never had a nighthawk panic and reinjure itself. When I took this little bird out of the box and held her in my hands, she hissed for a few seconds, but as I talked to her and gently stroked her back, she quieted down and nestled into my palm. I was so nervous when I saw the extent of the injury that my hands got hot and sweaty, but that just made them more comfortable for her.

She doesn’t seem to be in pain, so I’m going to keep taking care of her until she gets better or until the situation seems hopeless. I was keeping her in the dark at first, but now I’m setting her on a newspaper in a patch of sunlight a few hours a day. She seems perkier and more content when she’s warm. I give her an electrolyte and glucose solution four times a day when I put in her eyedrops, and I feed her then, too. In nature, every adult nighthawk eats only flying insects on the wing, so I have to place the food in the mouth of every nighthawk I get.

Being a rehabilitator is wonderful when I get to release a recovered bird into the vast sky. When I have a bird with such uncertain chances, it’s more heartbreaking than heartwarming. But as long as she has even the slimmest chance of recovery, I really have no choice.