Column: Rain Hawks: Equipped for catching insects in flight

People have been coming into Jay’s Bird Barn asking about a hawk or falcon-like bird flying erratically around street lights or near their homes at dusk. One excited customer said, “I’ve never seen a hawk with spots on its wings.”

These unique birds are nighthawks that seem to appear out of nowhere that dip and dive as nightfall approaches, feeding on flying insects. Nighthawks are in a small family of birds that includes nightjars such as poor-wills and whip-poor-wills and are not related to hawks or falcons. Often called goatsuckers – they were mistakenly believed to sneak into barns at night and suck dry the farmer’s goats.

During summer nesting season Arizona is home to both common and lesser nighthawks. Lessers are found most often in the drier southern half of our state while common nighthawks frequent central and northern Arizona. On occasion, both species can be seen in the Verde Valley.

One of the last migrants to arrive in our area, the common nighthawk comes all the way from South America and even as far south as Argentina. They often surprise us as we sit outside in early evening – darting through our view, dipping and rocking on long pointed wings. What looks like bright white spots on their wings are actually white bars that cross their primary feathers near the ends of the wings.

Nighthawks are voracious insect eaters, consuming hundreds of insects each night including flying ants, June bugs, mosquitoes, moths, wasps and grasshoppers. They are well equipped for catching insects in flight. What appears to be a very tiny beak in your field guide opens to reveal a gaping mouth surrounded by bristle-like feathers. These bristles funnel the insects into their mouth as they catch their prey on the wing with fast, bat-like maneuverability.

During the daytime nighthawks seem to disappear. With cryptic coloration and black eyes they are known to stretch out on a horizontal tree branch while roosting and are very hard to spot. Little is actually known about their breeding behavior. Researchers have confirmed that they usually lay only two eggs in a shallow scrape of stones or simply on the desert floor. Young are flying and foraging on their own only 25 days after hatching. And nighthawks raise only one brood each breeding season.

Many of us remember playing under streetlights as children fascinated by the nighthawk’s aerial displays. Occasionally nighthawks can be spotted perched on a dirt roadway ahead of your car lights. Common nighthawks have a very distinctive nasal “beerzh” rhyming with “beard” as they feed. And they make a startling “whoogh!” boom with their wings during courtship diving displays.

Hopi Indians believe they are very important messengers flying from distant mountains to give us a sign of coming rains. They say the big monsoon clouds follow closely behind and when you see several “rain hawks” the summer rains will begin within four days. And of course abundant insect hatches occur when the rains begin signaling the rain hawks are on their way. I thought of the Hopis as we watched the “rain hawks” fly through last night’s sunset as we wait for summer rains.

Dena Greenwood is a seasoned naturalist, birding guide and educator. As manager of Jay’s Bird Barn in West Sedona she is available to answer questions about wild birds and enhancing your backyard habitat. You may contact her at (928) 203-5700 or dena@jaysbirdbarn.com.

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