"The common nighthawk is the only nighthawk occurring over the majority of northern North America. They may be found in forests, deserts, savannahs, beaches, desert scrub, cities and prairies, at sea level or up to 12,000 ft. Nighthawks are one of a handful of birds that are known to inhabit recently burned forests, and then dwindle in population as forests regenerate over the succeeding years or decades. The common nighthawk can attracted to urban areas by the presence of insects.
Nighthawks are medium-sized birds and their presence is best revealed by their vocalization, which is a short, harsh, buzzing sound. They are for the most part invisible by day.
The common nighthawk does not travel frequently on the ground, but perches horizontally, parallel to branches, on posts or on a roof. They perch facing along a branch, rather than across it as birds usually do, which helps conceal them during the day.
They are called aerial insectivores as they feed on insects while in flight like swallows. They especially like to dine on moths. They stop feeding as dusk becomes night, and resume at early dawn. Feeding during the dark of the night is rare, even on evenings with a full moon.
Vision is presumed to be their main detection sense, and there is no evidence to support the use of echolocation like bats. These birds have been observed to converge on artificial light sources to forage for insects enticed by the light. The nighthawk drinks by flying extremely low over the surface of the water.
The nighthawk breeds every year and may reuse nest sites in subsequent years. They tend to be monogamous. Courting and mate selection occurs partially in flight, the male dives and booms in an effort to garner female attention, and the female may be in flight herself or stationary on the ground.
The common nighthawk will migrate by day or night in loose flocks; frequently numbering in the thousands. The enormous distance traveled between breeding grounds and wintering range is one of the longer bird migrations. The northbound journey starts at the end of February and the birds reach destinations as late as mid-June. The southbound migration commences mid-July and reaches a close in early October.
While migrating, these birds have been reported traveling through Middle America, Florida, the West Indies, Cuba, the Caribbean and Bermuda, finally wintering in South America, primarily Argentina. They will feed on route, congregating to hunt in marshes, rivers and on lakeshores.
During migration nighthawks are seen most commonly in the late afternoon, into the evening, with a burst of sunset feeding activities. While migrating, the birds may fly closer to the ground than normal, foraging for insects. Feeding can also occur at higher altitudes. The average flight speed of common nighthawks has been clocked at 14 mph.
The name nighthawk has captured the imagination of many. Nighthawk is the name of several fictional characters that appear in publications published by Marvel Comics. “Nighthawks” is a 1942 painting by Edward Hopper that portrays people sitting in a downtown diner late at night. The Lockheed F-117 “Nighthawk” was a single-seat, twin-engine stealth ground-attack aircraft.