Night hawk 'Bull bats' live in the Piney Woods

By Jay V. Huner
Journal Correspondent

How did a bird like the Common Nighthawk come to be called a "bull bat"? This medium-sized bird is not a bull, a bat, or a hawk. It is a member of the "goatsucker" family, a name originating from the belief that they sucked milk from nanny goats at night. So, that adds to the bull, bat, and hawk confusion.

The goatsuckers include whip-poor-wills, Chuck-will's-widows, and nighthawks.

These long-winged, long-tailed birds are aerial acrobats. They nest on bare ground relying on their mottled brown/gray colors to camouflage them from predators.

The Common Nighthawk is the odd bird out when it comes to its goatsucker cousins in that it can be found feeding at almost any time of day but it is most active in the twilight of early morning and late afternoon. They will pursue flying insects, eating hundreds of winged ants, for example, on nights during full moons and are often found around street lights and stadium lights. Their bills are short but their mouths are huge permitting them to catch large numbers of flying insects.

But, getting back to the name "bull bat", the late LSU ornithologist Professor George Lowery, Jr. commented as follows "unless the booming sound made by their wings is considered suggestive of the bellow of a bull." In fact, male Common Nighthawks will dive a high speed toward the ground and pull up just in time with the wind rushing through wing feathers generating a booming sound. This behavior is thought to attract mates and, perhaps, warn other males to stay out of the displaying bird's territory.

Although I could not find reference to the origin of the "bat" appellation, I suspect that this comes because bats and nighthawks are often present at dusk and dawn. Both have very erratic flight, but nighthawks are far more graceful in flight and appearance than bats! Still, it's nice to have both around to work on noxious insects including mosquitoes and plant eating beetles, moths, weevils, etc.

Common Nighthawks have very small legs and feet. They are unable to walk about very easily or to perch like most birds do. These birds spend the winter in South America. When they arrive from across the Gulf of Mexico in the spring, they commonly rest on utility wires and live oak tree branches. However, they often arrange themselves on the horizontal surfaces lengthwise.

On tree branches or the ground, they become more or less invisible blending into the background. However, they stick out like "sore thumbs" on utility wires.

Migrating Common Nighthawks often fly in large flocks moving northward. I once saw such a flock moving across the sky near my home in Rapides Parish, Louisiana. Birds were in view for over half an hour. I gave up counting. Checking the internet a bit later, I found that the flock had been so impressive that it had been reported about half an hour before from about 40 miles south of my location by another birder.

Feeding Common Nighthawks are easy to locate but difficult to see. They make a very distinct "Peent" call but flight is so erratic between calls in both vertical and horizontal directions with many zigs and zags that they are hard to find. But, once located, it is easy follow them and see the distinct white patch toward the ends of each wing.

Common Nighthawks can be found in most urban areas. They have adapted to nesting on flat, gravel roof tops. However, these interesting birds are also common in suburban and rural areas.