Introduction

Common Nighthawks at High Park

Common Nighthawks at High Park

based on information provided by Emily Rondel and Bird Studies Canada

Common Nighthawks (Chordeiles minor) were once a familiar sight in cities across Canada as they soared high in the air hunting for insects at dusk. Their unique nasal calls, spectacular “booming” courtship dives, and erratic moth-like flight made them a memorable part of summer evenings in Toronto. Despite their name they are not hawks; rather, like Whip-poor-wills, they belong to the Goatsucker family.

Common Nighthawk. Photo: Don Faulkner - BSC

Common Nighthawks are prevalent in urban environments. Before the European settlement of North America, these birds laid their eggs on the ground in forest clearings or rock barrens. After the construction of towns and cities, however, many Nighthawks found that flat gravel roofs also served as ideal nest sites. This penchant for city nesting habitat has contributed to making the Common Nighthawk an iconic urban bird.

The species also uses city habitat as important migratory habitat. Indeed, each year thousands of Common Nighthawks congregate near Toronto as they prepare for their southward migration. Toronto’s High Park is one of the best places to view this spectacular phenomenon as it provides a safe green corridor of foraging habitat for hungry birds as well as amazing viewing opportunities for the public.

Common Nighthawk. Photo: Paul Prior

The Nightshift on Hawk Hill: Fly Up and Be Counted

by Kathleen Keefe

Although its shape somewhat resembles a hawk’s, the Common Nighthawk is not a hawk and is no longer common. Before their population plummeted, the Common Nighthawk used to be much more of a familiar presence in Toronto’s summer skies, but you can still be a witness to their summertime evening spectacle if you’re lucky. During the day, nighthawks are just about invisible, but come dusk, they come out to feed in buoyant flight when lots of flying insects are available for midair snatching. Common Nighthawks put on quite an airshow of swooping loops with buzzing and booming sound effects. In fact, their genus name, Chordeiles, is from Ancient Greek “khoreia” which means “a dance with music.”

Around mid-August, all the Common Nighthawks in North America start their epic long migration to South America, and large numbers of them coming from other summering grounds fly over High Park. That’s when recorders organized by Bird Studies Canada show up for the count. For three weeks, these dedicated volunteers come to Hawk Hill each evening at sunset to record Common Nighthawk sightings. The Bird Studies Canada nighthawk count on Hawk Hill was started in 2013 and continued for several years with support and participants from the High Park Nature Centre. (NOTE: The Nighthawk Count is no longer active as of 2019.)

Common Nighthawks are not active in the early morning so these birds would get missed in any of the usual North American daytime bird counts organized to track bird population trends. Common Nighthawks are also so impressively camouflaged and motionless during the day that it is difficult to spot them, and their nests are extremely difficult to find. Yet, they need to be counted! Their numbers have dropped dramatically and they’ve been placed on the “threatened species” list. Data collected between 1968 and 2005 indicates their population in Canada decreased by 80% during that time.

Some reasons for their steep decline may include fewer insects to eat due to climate change and pesticide use, and an increase in nest predators like gulls, crows, raccoons, opossums, dogs and cats. Keeping count of the nighthawks could help to identify certain trends that may lead to successful recovery of this species.

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