The common nighthawk is an interesting creature. At just over 9” 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. If you’ve seen a nighthawk you probably remember it quite well: The brown birds can be frightening at first as they look 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 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 “endangered” as they are in imminent danger of becoming extinct in the Empire State. The New York State Ornithological Association has been pushing for that designation for two years now.
Historically, it was a common bird, nesting on rocky areas found beside 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 sight.
They then 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 prefect for the birds’ needs and, save hawks and crows, the high rooftops were predator-free.
But, the times have changed and so have roofing technologies. More contractors and maintenance personnel are going with rubberized, PVC, or stone ballast roofs that have eliminated the gravel so key to the birds.
Because of that, nighthawk populations have seen a drastic decline. 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. It’s believed the nighthawk population has dropped 75% over the past 50 years.
This trend does not have to mean that they’re a lost cause in New York. Commercial property owners and government facility managers can easily help bring back the nighthawks by turning their building into a home for our avian friends. In the coming months we will be building nighthawk nesting sites atop different structures at Confer Plastics and I recently suggested to the Royalton-Hartland School District that they do the same. In the case of the latter it would also provide an exceptional environmental learning experience for the students.
To construct a nesting site, you will need a large flat rooftop. Put down some gravel on that roof. Stone ballast won’t cut it; it’s much too large. Nighthawks need peastone, wee pebbles with a diameter of 3/8 to ½ 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 peastones.
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). 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, worker traffic and drainage. In Western New York the site should be in place by May 1, the approximate day the migrants return
Among the best resources available for such projects is the Project Nighthawk guidebook available at tinyurl.com/NighthawkRoof.
By building a nighthawk site at your place of work, whether you’re a businesswoman looking to do something for the environment or a teacher wanting to educate his pupils about the natural world around us, you can easily have an impact on one of nature’s creatures that so desperately needs our help. Let’s not let the sun set on nighthawks in New York.
From the 17 August 2020 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News