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The Common Nighthawk is a medium-sized bird, with dark brown plumage mottled with black, white and buff. It has long, slender, pointed wings and a long slightly notched tail. The head is large and flat, with large eyes, a small bill, and a wide mouth. In flight, a white patch can be seen on the wings of the adults. Females can be distinguished from males by their throat band, which is pale yellow rather than white. The throat band on juveniles is mottled or absent. Adult males have a white tail band, which is lacking in most adult females.

Weight: 71 to 93 g (2.5 to 3.3 oz). Length: 21 to 25 cm (8 to 10 in).

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Common Nighthawks are found in the southern part of the Northwest Territories and through most of Canada.

Range map information

Common Nighthawks arrive in the Northwest Territories to breed in mid- May to early June. They nest in a variety of habitats such as sand dunes and beaches, open forests, forest clearings (including recently logged or burned areas), rocky outcrops, peat bogs, marshes, lakeshores, river banks, gravel areas (roads, quarries and flat gravel-covered roofs), and airports. Common Nighthawks lay on average two eggs directly on the soil, sand, gravel or bare rock. Chicks stay in the nest area for about three weeks and are primarily fed by the male. Fall migration to wintering areas in South America occurs from mid-August to mid-September.

Common Nighthawks are crepuscular, meaning they are most active at dawn and dusk. They actively pursue flying insects at dusk and dawn, often feeding on insects attracted to lights and insects swarming over bodies of water.

Common Nighthawks can be recognized by their loud, nasal "peent" calls and erratic, almost bat-like flight. Male Common Nighthawks perform spectacular booming courtship dives as part of mating and territorial displays. The booms are produced by air rushing through the feathers. 


Like many other species of birds that feed on flying insects, the Common Nighthawk experienced declines of about 68% since the 1970s. The reasons for the declines are not well understood but they could be the impacts of multiple threats or cumulative effects affecting Common Nighthawks on their breeding grounds, wintering grounds, and during migration. A 16% increase was recently estimated in Canada over a ten year period (2009-2019). 

Potential threats in the Northwest Territories include collisions with motor vehicles and aircraft, large-scale decline or some other change in insect populations, and human activities resulting in declining food sources and increased numbers of predators. Direct and indirect mortality due to severe weather events (cold snaps), as well as habitat loss and degradation from human activities, are also potential threats.

COSEWIC assessed Common Nighthawk as Threatened in 2007 and Common Nighthawk was listed as Threatened under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA) in 2010. In 2018, COSEWIC re-assessed Common Nighthawk as Special Concern because the rate of population decline has slowed over the past decade, although concerns remain about threats and the long-term decline. The SARA listed status was changed to Special Concern in 2023.

Common Nighthawks and their nests are protected under the federal Migratory Birds Convention Act. A national recovery strategy for Common Nighthawk is available on the federal Species at Risk Public Registry.

Dehcho North Slave / Tłı̨chǫ Sahtú South Slave