The Nighthawk’s Trajectory

What the trajectory of Common Nighthawks tells us about the suburban landscape.

I’m an agnostic in all things but nighthawks, for with the bullbat I hold this belief: one cannot pursue the bird directly; rather, one can only seek a trajectory that may someday cross theirs. 

My faith in the bird was born amid their southward migration through Denver, Colorado, in September 2015. I’d gone looking for nighthawks in a place where and at a time when I thought it likely I might see one. Common Nighthawks are (mostly) crepuscular; they hunt for flying insects through dawn and dusk. Walking around central Denver’s Cheesman Park after sunset, eyes aimed upward, I found only brown bats. I sat a while, awaiting night, and watched these other things with wings. Then, I left.

In truth, I just readied to leave. I sat in my car and, though it was a Sunday and though it was evening, I compulsively checked my email. A (lengthy) message from my department chair at the University of Denver greeted me. Compulsively, I read it, though I believe one should neither mix time off with work nor birds with the same. Dusk gave way to night. The bats gave way to a still park.

At the end of the email, nighthawks. 

A trio, emerging from the nearby neighborhood, furiously pursued insects under the park’s streetlights. I left my car and followed them. Nighthawks, like swallows, feed on the wing, catching insects as they fly. They are strong, agile fliers. I have seen them cut upward, leaning backward as they do, in pursuit of prey. They make micro-adjustments that give them a “tipsy” appearance, as Pete Dunne puts it in his Field Guide Companion. To me, they appear confident in the air. Untouchable, even. Nighthawks always seem to be beyond their human-observer, even when approaching them—a twist of angles always cutting away. Unlike songbirds, which rarely fly directly at people, this trio chased their prey wherever it went, even if it meant flying directly at me. 

An arm’s length away, a nighthawk.  

Photo credit: "Nighthawk at Dusk (Centennial, Colorado)" by Jared Del Rosso
Nighthawk at Dusk (Jared Del Rosso)

One can only seek a trajectory that may someday cross the trajectory of a nighthawk. I spent this past summer seeking just that. I let my dogs lead me. I indulged every detour and delay. We turned home when they wanted to. We inspected dead ends. We doubled back on trails. We lingered when the dogs wanted to linger. We sat together in fields and on curbs. I suppressed my better judgement of where and when the birds would appear. By maintaining the appearance of not seeking nighthawks, I hoped I could fool serendipity into delivering them.

I did so to try to document the bird’s presence in Centennial, a southern suburb of Denver, during the bird’s nesting season. A mid-June sighting gave me hope. My dogs and I sought the birds above a buggy marsh at a local open space. The setting sun inspired the complex chorus of catbirds, blackbirds, and sparrows. But I missed a simpler sound: the buzz of the bird I sought, the distinct, nasal “peent” of a nighthawk. As dusk deepened, my dogs decided it was time to head back to our car. (One dog is afraid of the dark and what it means in Colorado: wild canids. The other is simply not much for walking.) I obliged, though I wanted to keep seeking. 

Nearer to the car, the dogs changed their minds, insisting I let them chase each other around me. Though leashed, the dogs sprinted circles. To keep myself from their tangle, I spun with them. Once, twice, then—and only because the dogs had chosen when to turn back and when to stop for play and when to turn me in the right direction—a nighthawk. 

I seek the nighthawk’s trajectory because I measure the world by this bird. They arrive in Colorado late in spring migration, just as that season tips toward summer. They leave before autumn begins whispering of winter. But the bird isn’t just a sign of the seasons. Their presence speaks of the complexity of our climate, the non-human world, and the human/non-human nexus. Obligate feeders on flying insects, the Common Nighthawk’s steep population decline over the past half-century may relate to broader declines in their prey, owing to pesticide use, the warming planet, and other factors. Nighthawks are losing habitat, too. Some of that habitat is their wild habitat of grasslands and forests. But they’re also losing built habitats in urban and suburban environments. Nighthawks use the flat, gravel-covered roofs of many urban buildings as nesting sites. Unfortunately for the birds, most new development forgoes gravel for other materials, such as rubber. (Patches of gravel, installed on flat roofs, are a potential compromise that may support nesting nighthawks. New Hampshire’s “Project Nighthawk” is experimenting with this.)  

The fate of Common Nighthawks is tethered to us, in ways that the fates of many non-human animals are. But it isn’t easy to observe our entangled destinies. Nighthawks are not like the chickadees that visit our feeders, the finches and phoebes that nest on nooks around our houses, the corvids that seem more at home around our homes than we do, or the hawks that hunt on our highways. Nighthawks nest on our skylines. They migrate at incredible heights, and the vast majority of these birds pass over our summer and fall activities without being noticed. By day, they disappear into trees, grasses, and rocks. Their cryptic feathering renders them invisible. If you’ve ever lucked into a sighting of a nighthawk on a tree, you know how easy it would be to overlook the bird. You also know that nighthawks don’t care that you’ve found them. Their faith in their camouflage, their use of difficult to access perches, and the fact that they have no need for daytime activity allows them to tolerate proximity to us. 

Photo credit: "Perched Common Nighthawk (St. Paul, Minnesota)" by Jared Del Rosso
Perched Nighthawk along the Mississippi River (Jared Del Rosso)

Ultimately, my trajectory and the Common Nighthawk’s did not intersect during their nesting season. Perhaps this is a sign of the species’ decline or of my neighborhood’s hostility, with our grassy lawns and dependence on pesticides, to the birds and their prey. Perhaps it is only that I have not yet found our shared trajectory. 

But I have learned something else from this effort. Pursue this uncommon bird, during the uncommon hours of dawn and dusk, and you will find the trajectory of other uncommon creatures. Those brown bats, one of which dropped me to my knees by hunting at the brim of my hat. A raccoon, ambling down a drainage ditch. A coyote, patrolling an undeveloped field. Fox kits, playfully hunting along a neighborhood path. Great Horned Owls, perched in suburban parking lots and cemeteries. A Mule Deer pair, cautiously watching the human animals who ride bikes, and toss baseballs, and walk dogs while seeking nighthawks in fields near riparian corridors.

This essay originally appeared on the Center for Humans & Nature’s blog.

Featured image by Kenneth Cole Schneider @

Review of The Rarest Bird in the World

In 2009, Vernon R. L. Head and his companions set out to become the first birders to see the rarest bird in the world, the Nechisar Nightjar.

I feel the need to open with a disclaimer. Book writing is difficult. And books aim for an audience. Sometimes, we find ourselves outside that audience. Reviews, I think, should begin from those premises.

This was the case for me with Vernon R. L. Head’s book The Rarest Bird in the World: The Search for the Nechisar Nightjar. On one hand, Head took on an impossible task: the only thing known about the Nechisar Nightjar is that exists, and even this is questioned. In 1990, scientists a single wing in a remote location in southern Ethiopia. In 1995, they published an article identifying it as belonging to a then unknown (to science) nightjar. They named the species Caprimulgus solala (the sole-winged goatsucker), or Nechisar Nightjar, for the location of the bird’s discovery.

Little is known about the wing. And thus the impossibility of Head’s task, to write a book about a bird about which there is nothing to say. Accordingly, The Rarest Bird in the World says little about the Nechisar Nightjar, beyond recounting the discovery of the bird’s wing. A twenty-five page chapter does help the reader understand the family of birds we call Nightjars, Head’s encounters with them as a bird-watcher, and his pursuit of some of their family members and more distant relative, such as Oilbirds, across the globe.

Oilbird, a relative of the Nightjars.
Oilbird. Photo by Doug Greenberg on flickr.

The Wrong Reader

And this leads me to the question of audience. Head is a global birder and The Rarest Bird in the World is as much about global birding as it is Head and companions’ pursuit of the Nechisar Nightjar. As such, it reads more as a travel book than a book about birds, or the environment, or nature.

To be sure, Head offers occasional remarks on conservation, evolution, or the behavior of birds. But The Rarest Bird in the World lacks the careful observations, grounded in a strong sense of place, that I look for in the books I read about birds and birders. Instead, Head’s destinations and his encounters with rare species at those destinations are central to the book. From these, he offers generalizations about what it means to be a bird-watcher. I imagine that some bird-watchers, particularly those who chase birds across the globe, will recognize their way of thinking about and doing birding reflected in Head’s book. As a mostly local birder, who usually eschews the chase, I didn’t.

Given how badly suited I am to The Rarest Bird in the World, I read it in a hurry. I nearly stopped, a chapter or two in, overwhelmed by Head’s use of metaphors. Probably 60-80% of the book’s paragraphs include at least one, often more. I think Head was trying to make the unfamiliar familiar. After all, most readers will not have observed the places and birds that Head wrote of.

For me, Head’s metaphors replaced careful observation of birds and the surprise that comes from uncovering something genuinely new or overlooked in the familiar feathers of a crow, raven, or starling. Head pursues the new in extraordinary encounters with extraordinary birds, and he tried to convey these experiences by comparing them to experiences slightly less extraordinary. Fair enough. But I still prefer the extraordinary in the birds of ordinary places. The ravens, kingbirds, and blackbirds who nest at strip malls have intrigue enough.

A Raven @ Tower of London. Photo by Kasturi Roy on Unsplash

Do Rare Birds Need Us?

The Rarest Bird in the World left me wondering what genuinely rare and vulnerable birds want of us. Surely, it’s to be left alone. Being discovered by humans is only “useful” to a vulnerable species in that some humans might protect that species from some other humans. Head tells some of these stories of species pushed to the brink by humans only to be saved, perhaps just barely so, by conservationists and ornithologists.

This is one of the tragedies of human discovery. For many birds, to be known by humans is fatal. And yet to be known, particularly today amid the Anthropocene, might be a vulnerable species best hope.

For more, listen to this 4 minute NPR program.

Featured Photo of the plains of Nechisar by flickr user Rafael Medina

The Hummingbird’s Gift: Wonder, Renewal, and Beauty on Wings

Sy Montgomery’s The Hummingbird’s Gift shows just how wild the world’s smallest birds are.

Like The Hawk’s Way, Sy Montgomery’s The Hummingbird’s Gift: Wonder, Renewal, and Beauty on Wings is a repackaged chapter from Montgomery’s book Birdology. In many respects, it’s also about the same themes — wildness and the utter, unpassable gap between humans and a family (or two) of birds.

This theme is more fully realized in The Hummingbird’s Gift. This is unexpected. Hummingbirds would seem a far more docile, less wild thing than a hawk. Consider size. North America’s most familiar hummingbird, the Ruby-throated, weigh just .4% what a large female of North America’s most common hawk, the Red-tailed, weighs. And while the latter are built to kill, hummingbirds are built to lap up nectar and miniscule insects.

It’s the hummingbird’s diminutive size and their delicacy that makes them far less amenable to the handling of humans than hawks. Montgomery explains to us how much of hummingbirds exist as air. Yet its this delicacy that makes hummingbirds such remarkable creatures. They are the only birds that genuinely hover. Hummingbirds are even capable of feeding while upside down in flight. And though Peregrine Falcons get all the attention for their gravity-enhanced speeds, hummingbirds are arguably faster.

… a male Allen’s humingbird, for instance, can dive out of the sky reaching sixty-one miles per hour, plunging from fifty feet at a rate of more than sixty feet per second–and pulling out of his plunge, he experiences more than nine times the force of gravity. Adjusted for body length, the Allen’s is the fastest bird in the world. Diving at 385 body lengths per second, this hummer beats the peregrine falcon’s dives at 200 body lengths per second–and even bests the space shuttle as it screams down the atmosphere at 207 body lengths per seconds.

Montgomery, The Hummingbird’s Gift, p. 16
SUPERNATURE – WILD FLYERS | Anna’s Hummingbird | PBS

Most of the Montgomery’s essay is a careful description of the work of Brenda Sherburn, one of the few people in the country who have the skills, patience, and commitment to rehabilitate hummingbirds and their nestling. We follow Brenda and Sy as they try to save the lives of two orphaned Allen’s Hummingbirds nestlings.

It’s a gripping story that can, at any moment, end badly. Hunger, mites, and aggressive Anna’s Hummingbirds threaten the nestlings. Montgomery takes us through all of it, offering bits and pieces of natural and cultural history along the way.

I hope the story leaves its readers planting pollinator-friendly wildflowers and keeping their cats inside. And maybe, just maybe, appreciating the tiny, fairy-like hummers that sip sugar water at feeders. After all, they are no less wild than the hawks and owls that carry off other living things at the harsh edges of prairies and forest.

Broad-tailed Hummingbird feeding on Agastache rupestris
Broad-tailed Hummingbird feeding on Agastache rupestris

Featured Photo by Dustin Humes on Unsplash

What’s a good bird? Elizabeth Cherry’s “For the Birds”

As a qualitative sociologist who’s also a bird-watcher—or perhaps, more accurately, a bird-watcher who is also a qualitative sociologist—I was thrilled to discover Elizabeth Cherry’s book For the Birds: Protecting Wildlife through the Naturalist Gaze (Routledge, 2019).

Cherry is an associate professor of sociology at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York, mainly researching and teaching in the areas of culture, theory, and the environment. For the Birds is her second book on animals and society. Her first, Culture and Activism: Animal Rights in France and the United States, was also published by Routledge. Both books have also won distinguished book awards from the Animals & Society Section of the American Sociological Association.

For the Birds is a book I wish I’d written. Cherry participated in birding trips and interviewed birders to understand how we think about and act toward birds and the environment. The book dispels stereotypes about birders as obsessives interested mainly, if not exclusively, in their life lists to show how we learn to care about the birds we encounter and the habitats that sustain them. She describes us developing a “naturalist gaze” through which we observe the dynamic relationships between birds, humans, and urban / suburban habitats.

Two of the chapters in For the Birds address birders’ perceptions and ways of talking about specific species and categories of birds. Given my own interest in how people think about Nightjars and Nighthawks, these chapters are of special interest.

Chapter 3 addresses common birds; Cherry shows that birders are not nearly as indifferent toward the typical birds of yards and parks as we normally think. Rather, we take common birds as indicators of relatively healthy ecosystems, particularly in urban and suburban environments.

Cherry also demonstrates how birding trip leaders try to convey this quality of common birds, helping field trip participants value the numerically common birds. Her writing on this resonated with my own experience, both as a trip participant and trip leader. Field trip leaders may draw attention to common birds, teacher novice birders how to identify them, and share origin stories of those birds’ presence in urban and suburban landscapes.

Learning to see the connections between birds, food sources, water sources, and built environments is critically important in this. Urban and suburban habitats come alive when we can perceive these connections. And birders may develop a commitment to stewardship and conservation, creating backyard and neighborhood landscapes that can sustain these connections. That so many birders become proponents of native plants is an example of this.

Chapter 5, meanwhile, addresses the distinctions birders make between “good” and “bad” birds. The former are, in a sense, birds–in–place: native species in balance with ecosystems. Birders are take into consideration commonness of birds. Uncommon birds and/or those that we only encounter during migration tend to be described as “good” birds during and after our outings in the field. Bad birds tend to be species out of alignment with ecosystems — invasive species and those birders consider “harmful” to other birds. Brown-headed Cowbirds, which lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, are the main example of the latter.

For a while now, I’ve found it curious that birders, myself included, will use phrases like “good bird” and “best bird” when describing their outings. I’ve wanted to analyze posts in birding lists to see which birds us birders apply these terms to. My sense is that uncommon birds — migratory ones and colorful ones, especially — most frequently earn this label. I’ll tend to use the term to apply to some migratory vireos in the Front Range of Colorado — Plumbeous and Cassin’s Vireos, especially, but not the rather common Warbling Vireo.

But Cherry shows that birders also consider the broader, ecological context of bird sightings.

Birders deem birds “good” based on their behavior, including how they fit into an ecosystem and how they exercise agency to provide ecosystem benefits.

Cherry, For the Birds, p. 117-18

A bird like the Common Nighthawk — my favorite bird and almost always the “best” bird on my lists when I see this — fits most of these criteria. It is, most of the year, numerically uncommon (by comparison to common birds). Though not difficult to encounter, it’s not exactly easy to encounter. So sightings, too, are rather infrequent in most urban and suburban settings.

But their behavior, too, draws me in: their crepuscular flights; their singular calls; and their intense, unsteady pursuits of prey. (I’ve written of these in “The Nighthawk’s Trajectory,” for the Center for Humans and Nature.) And then there are Nighthawks relationships to ecosystems: their dependence on flying insects as prey and their use of human habitats for nesting, for instance. This is what Cherry means by “good birds” exercising “agency.”

I also have a tendency of designating every Shrike I see — Loggerheads during spring and fall migration, Northern during winter — as a “good” bird. Like nighthawks and some vireos, they’re uncommon. On most bird outings, I don’t expect to see them. They are also rather “picky” in their exercising of agency. They need particular habitats and food sources. In Denver’s suburbs, they tend to prefer weedy, overgrown areas with lots of insects and mice. This means you’re less likely to encounter them in a backyard than you are even the uncommon vireos. And many suburban parks wouldn’t attract them. Rather, you need wilder portions of suburban habitat.

All of this is to say that Cherry’s sociological analysis of how birders think and talk about common, good, and bad birds resonates with — and, indeed, clarifies — the birder’s experience.

Featured photo by Joshua J. Cotten on Unsplash

Alan Jackson, Vince Gill, and the Nostalgic Whip-poor-will

Whip-poor-will numbers have declined markedly over the past several decades. Country singers have noticed. A trio of songs released in the early 2000s remember the lost world of Whip-poor-wills.

While the lonesome Whip-poor-will gets most of the attention, we’ve created another version of the bird. The nostalgic Whip-poor-will, perhaps first offered in the 1950s hit “Mockin’ Bird Hill,” shows strongly in the early 2000s in a trio of songs: Darryl Whorley’s “Back Where I Belong” (2002), Vince Gill’s “Whippoorwill River” (2003), and Alan Jackson’s “I Still Like Bologna” (2008).

In Whorley’s and Jackson’s songs, the nostalgia is put plainly. Whorley’s Whip-poor-will calls him home to pastoral world he left behind for city living.

Big city nights and lights surround me
Feels like a prison to my soul
I can hear a Whippoorwill calling me home
Back where I belong

Jackson, meanwhile, lists the Whip-poor-will as one of many simple things — like the bologna in the song’s title — that he prefers to modern developments.

But I still
Like bologna
On white bread
Now and then
And the sound
Of a whippoorwill
Down a country road
The grass between my toes
And that sunset sinking low
And a good woman's love
To hold me close

Vince Gill’s “Whippoorwill River” is less direct in both its invocation of the bird and in its nostalgia. The song references what appears to be a fictional river — or perhaps a local name for a river known by something else on Google Maps. (There are a few Whip-poor-will Creeks, but I’ve not yet found a Whippoorwill River.) The song celebrates a life lived simply, among the continuities of family and land. Gill sings of fishing the river with his father, running ponies there with the girl who’d become his wife, then fishing the river with his own son.

Yeah, he loves to go fishing on Whippoorwill River
And catch him a big one or two
He's learning about life
And its simple pleasures
And making a memory or two.

“Whippoorwill River” seems like the place to which Whorley’s Whip-poor-will calls him.

The association between Whip-poor-will and a lost world is not accidental. Whip-poor-wills breed in forests with clear understories, not the urban and suburban habitats that many Americans now live in.

Nor is this sense of lose uniquely human. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Whip-poor-will populations have decreased by about 2% annually since 1966. This reflects a decline of about 60% over the past sixty years. Like Whorley, the birds are losing their homes — wooded spaces with understories — owing to the “development” of these habitats into suburban spaces and for agriculture.

And while I’m hesitant to attribute the uniquely human state of nostalgia to Whip-poor-wills themselves, the losses and threats that Whorley and Jackson sing of seem to apply as much to the birds as us people who sing of them.

Learn More about Nightjar Conservation at

Featured Photo by Eagan Hsu on Unsplash

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