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Common Nighthawk

Chordeiles minor

Length: 9 to 10 inches Wingspan: 20 to 22 inches Seasonality: Summer
ID Keys: In flight, slender, long sharply pointed wings, white bar near base of primaries

Common Nighthawk - Chordeiles minorThe Common Nighthawk is a familiar sight on summer evenings in the state as it is often seen over urban areas as it chases flying insects. They are highly specialized for capturing insects in flight, with a mouth that opens to a truly enormous size compared to the size of the bird. Active during both the day or night, they often congregate around light sources at night to feed on swarming insects. Common Nighthawks can sometimes be soon roosting during the day, typically single birds found on horizontal tree branches, fence posts, or rocks. The species has adapted very well to a human presence, and will often nest on gravel roofs.

Note one unusual feature of the Common Nighthawk is a "pectinate" toe (see photos at bottom of the page). The comb-like extension on one toe of a nighthawk is thought to function as a grooming device, combing and preening feathers and perhaps removing parasites.


Can be found in a wide variety of semi-open to open habitats, including farmland, prairies, forest clearings, and urban areas.


Insects, especially flying insects such as moths, grasshoppers, beetles, flies, and flying ants.


May feed at any time of the day or night, but is often the most active near dawn and dusk. Common Nighthawks have incredibly wide, gaping mouths which are used to scoop up insects in flight.


June and July in South Dakota.  The nest is usually on the ground in a sandy or pebbly location, but they have also learned to use gravel and rock roofs in urban areas.  The female lays 2 eggs directly on the nesting surface, with no formal nest constructed.  Both parents help to incubate the eggs, but the female does most of the incubation.  Upon hatching, both parents help feed the young regurgitated insects.


The typical call of a Common Nighthawk is a nasal, harsh "peent", given either in flight or while at rest. Common Nighthawks are also known for 'Booming", a loud, harsh, buzzy noise produced by the air moving through their wings as they dive during courtship flights.


Summers throughout most of the U.S. and Canada.  Primarily winters in South America.

Interactive eBird Map:

Click to access an interactive eBird map of Common Nighthawk sightings

Similar Species:

Similar overall in structure to other "goatsuckers" that could be found in South Dakota

Chuck-will's Widow - Antrostomus carolinensis Common Poorwill - Phalaenoptilus nuttallii Eastern Whip-poor-will - Antrostomus vociferus
Chuck-will's Widow Common Poorwill Eastern Whip-poor-will

Conservation Status:

Common throughout much of its range, but in some locations has exhibited severe declines for unknown reasons.  However, populations currently aren't under a serious threat, and the IUCN lists the Common Nighthawk as a species of "Least Concern".

South Dakota "Hotspot":

Common Nighthawks could be seen almost anywhere in open habitats during the summer months, but one place I seem to see them more consistently than elsewhere in the state is Buffalo Gap National Grasslands. Even more reliable for one specific locations is the Sioux Falls airport! There have been many times where I've gotten back from a business trip in the late evening or after dark, walked out of the building, and immediately heard the calls of foraging Common Nighthawks. As noted above, Common Nighthawks will nest on a rocky roof, and I suspect some buildings in the airport area must have that feature.

Further Information:

Image Information:

June 28th, 2020 - Near Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota - Terry Sohl

Audio File Credits:

Click on the map below for a higher-resolution view
Common Nighthawk - Range Map
South Dakota Status: Common summer resident throughout the state.

Additional Common Nighthawk Images
Click for a higher-resolution version of these photos
Common Nighthawk 1 - Chordeiles minorCommon Nighthawk 2 - Chordeiles minorCommon Nighthawk 3 - Chordeiles minorCommon Nighthawk 4 - Chordeiles minorCommon Nighthawk 5 - Chordeiles minorCommon Nighthawk 6 - Chordeiles minorCommon Nighthawk 6 - Chordeiles minor - Showing pectinate toe
Common Nighthawk - Drawing by Terry Sohl