The common nighthawk is an interesting creature. At just over nine inches in length, a little bit smaller than a blue jay, it is a medium-sized bird that can be seen at dawn or dusk, flying at great heights in search of the insects on which it dines.
You may have seen nighthawks before and probably remember them quite
well: The brown birds can be frightening at first glance as they look
almost like giant bats in flight. They are quickly told apart from the
flying mammals by the white stripes on their wings and the call of
"peent" that escapes their beaks.
Unfortunately, the common nighthawk is quickly becoming anything but
common. The NY Department of Environmental Conservation calls it "a
species of special concern," an animal the population of which merits
attention and consideration. An argument could easily be made that
nighthawks deserve to be classified as "threatened" as they are in
imminent danger of becoming endangered in the Empire State.
It wasn’t always like this. Historically it was a very common bird,
nesting on rocky areas so common to New York’s vast shorelines along and
in our borders. But, as Man conquered the wilderness they built homes
on the nighthawks’ nesting sites and, making matters worse, they brought
with them domestic cats which wandered about and/or became feral, in
turn feasting on the ground-nesting birds. Nighthawks soon became a rare
They saw a resurgence in the early 1900s and actually became quite
abundant in urban areas until only recently, adjusting to the growing
human population by living atop buildings – skyscrapers, apartments,
schools and factories – that had flat, tar and gravel rooftops which
provided fine places to nest. The gravel most commonly used was perfect
for the birds’ needs and, save hawks and crows, the high rooftops were
But, the times have changed and so have roofing technologies. More and
more contractors are going with rubberized, PVC, or stone ballast roofs
that — through no intentional fault of the roofers — have eliminated the
gravel so key to the birds.
Because of that, nighthawk populations have seen a drastic decline in recent decades.
The NYS Breeding Bird Atlas that was compiled in the years 1980 to 1985
noted countless nests throughout the state, especially in urban areas.
The most recent version of the Atlas (which uses data amassed from
2000-2005) shows a pitifully small number of nests. The difference
between the two studies is quite disturbing.
Looking at Niagara County specifically, contributors to the older atlas
found 10 different nesting in our county. Naturalists who assisted in
the newest version? They found just 1.
When I was a kid I saw them in good numbers in the evening skies over
the hamlet of Gasport and almost took them for granted. Now, if I see
one, I marvel at the rarity.
This trend does not have to mean that nighthawks are a lost cause
destined for near-extinction in Niagara County. Commercial property
owners and government facility managers can easily help bring back the
nighthawks by turning their buildings — apartments, office complexes,
schools — into homes for our avian friends.
You will need a large flat rooftop. Put down some gravel on the roof.
Stone ballast won’t cut it; it’s much too large. Nighthawks need
peastone, wee pebbles with a diameter of 3/8 to 1⁄2 of an inch. The
stones should be laid down in a 9-foot by 9-foot patch that is about 2
stones deep. An area that size will require 6 to 8 sheetrock buckets of
You could just set that atop the roof but it is strongly suggested by
some birders that you build a border around the stones to prevent the
gravel from moving around (which also helps in alleviating the fears of
maintenance personnel) and you should first lay down some landscaping
fabric to protect the roof. Before commencing with your project you must
also be cognizant of other factors like shade, drainage and — if it’s a
commercial property — worker traffic.
Among the best resources available for developing such projects is the Project Nighthawk guidebook available at: http://nhbirdrecords.org/bird-conservation/library/Nighthawk-handbook.pdf
If such a deed interests you, the nest site should be in place by May 1,
the approximate day the migrants return to Niagara County. By building a
nighthawk site at your place of work, whether you’re a businessperson
looking to do something for the environment or a teacher wanting to
educate his pupils about the world around us, you can easily have an
impact on one of nature’s creatures that so desperately needs our help.
Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport. When he makes it to the Big City
(Lockport) at dusk, he probably looks creepy scanning the nighttime
skies for nighthawks. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
From the 11 September 2014 East Niagara Post