Funny name, nighthawk, but they're members of an even more oddly named family: the goatsuckers. Nighthawks and their local cousins whip-poor-wills and Chuck-will's-widows were initially thought to suck milk or blood from goats and other livestock. While that notion was dispelled years ago, the scientific name Caprimulgidae stuck, perhaps as a reminder about how little we once knew and a reminder of how much we still have to learn about birds.
In short, the only accurate part of the common nighthawks' name is "night," and even that's a stretch. They come out about an hour before sunset, hunting until about an hour after sunset; then they resume the hunt about an hour before dawn, hunting another 15 minutes after sun-up. Then they go to roost.
In my own yard, I've startled a nighthawk from its day-roost, although I'm not sure which of us was the more startled. Because the bird is cryptically marked, it sticks tight to it roost, relying on camouflage for final protection. Thus, the explosion into flight occurs last-minute, when a perceived intruder is within feet of its perch. Given the bird's nearly 10-inch length and 22-inch wingspan, the sudden take-off really does resemble something explosive.
Because they perch along the top side of a sizeable limb, sitting parallel, and because they wear perfect camouflage to match their perch, nighthawks mostly go unobserved during daylight hours. Of course, that's their plan. So, it's at dusk I most often see them.
Folks often ask me how I see so many unusual birds in the yard, birds that never come to feeders and birds that other folks claim never to observe in their yards. The answer is really quite simple, and the secret is hidden in a single word: sound. Listen for the call and find the bird. So it is with nighthawks. Once their unusual "peent" call jogs my feeble brain to train my eyes skyward, I look for a bird with sharply pointed wings, each with a single white racing stripe across it. They're hard to mistake, flying low, often barely tree-top level, snagging bugs on the wing, wide gaping mouth acting like a scoop, gathering bugs, lots and lots and lots of bugs.
While nighthawks on the hunt show an erratic, bat-like flight, they're strong long-distance fliers. In fact, they make one of the longest migrations of any North American bird, wintering in southern South America and breeding well into northern Canada, almost to Alaska. Perhaps because of their long migratory flight, they are one of the last tropical birds to reach the Tri-State. It's probably safe to say that their calls across local skies announce the end of spring migration.
They come here to nest, to feed their babies our bugs, nesting on bare ground, especially that covered with gravel, sand, wood chips, or bare rock. Even flat gravel-covered roofs make a spiffy abode for these odd birds.
Reliably, you can enjoy the common nighthawk's antics most any warm summer evening along Evansville's riverfront. Relax at the Four Freedoms Monument, listen, and look up.