Are nightjars and Nighthawks the same?

Answered by James Kissner

Nightjars and Nighthawks are not the same, although they do belong to the same family of birds called Caprimulgidae. These birds are known for their unique hunting behaviors and are often found in similar habitats, such as open woodlands and grasslands. However, there are several distinct differences between nightjars and nighthawks that set them apart.

One of the main differences between these two birds is their hunting style. Nightjars, also known as goatsuckers, are primarily insectivorous birds that rely on their agility and camouflaged plumage to catch flying insects. They typically hunt by making short, swift flights from a perch, snatching insects out of the air, and then returning to the ground. This hunting technique is well-suited for their preferred prey, which includes moths, beetles, and other flying insects.

On the other hand, nighthawks have a different hunting strategy. They are aerial foragers and are often referred to as “hawkmoths” due to their hawk-like appearance and flying behavior. Nighthawks have small heads and large mouths, which enable them to catch insects while flying. They have long, pointed wings that allow for agile and sustained flight. Unlike nightjars, nighthawks are capable of flying at higher altitudes and for longer periods, sometimes even for hours at a time. They are known to feed on a variety of insects, including beetles, flying ants, and grasshoppers.

In terms of physical characteristics, nightjars and nighthawks also have notable differences. Nightjars have relatively large heads and eyes, which aid in their nocturnal hunting. Their plumage is typically mottled and cryptic, providing excellent camouflage against tree bark or leaf litter. Nighthawks, on the other hand, have smaller heads and more streamlined bodies. Their wings are pointed, allowing for efficient and swift flight. Their plumage is generally darker and less patterned compared to nightjars, providing better camouflage during daylight hours.

Another difference between nightjars and nighthawks is their vocalizations. Nightjars are known for their distinctive calls, which often include a series of melodic trills, churring sounds, or mechanical-like notes. These vocalizations are usually heard during the breeding season and are believed to be territorial or courtship displays. Nighthawks, on the other hand, produce a variety of vocalizations, including a nasal “peent” call made during their aerial displays. These displays are often performed by males to attract females or establish territories.

It’s important to note that there are several species of nightjars and nighthawks, each with its own unique characteristics and behaviors. The common nighthawk (Chordeiles minor) and the common poorwill (Phalaenoptilus nuttallii) are two well-known species found in North America. The European nightjar (Caprimulgus europaeus) is a common species in Europe and Asia. Each of these species may have specific adaptations and behaviors that differentiate them further within the broader categories of nightjars and nighthawks.

Nightjars and nighthawks are similar in that they are both members of the Caprimulgidae family and are adapted for hunting insects. However, they differ in their hunting styles, physical characteristics, vocalizations, and habitats. Nightjars primarily hunt from a perch and make short flights, whereas nighthawks are aerial foragers that fly at higher altitudes for extended periods. The differences in their physical features, such as head size and wing shape, also contribute to their distinct hunting behaviors. Understanding these differences helps us appreciate the diversity and unique adaptations of these fascinating birds.