We first spotted the bird last June while my husband was cleaning debris from the flat roof of our Cleveland Heights home. She was huddled under the eaves, easily visible from the windows of our second-floor landing.
A bit of research told us that she was a Common Nighthawk, a bird that does not make a traditional nest, but instead lays its eggs on flat surfaces — the bare ground, a tree stump, or even a roof.
The idea is that the birds, and their chicks, don’t need a nest for safety because they blend into their surroundings.
Nighthawks are not true hawks, but rather part of the nightjar family. They are medium-sized birds, 8 to 9 inches in length with a wingspan of 21–24 inches. They typically live 4 to 5 years, though the oldest nighthawk on record, a female, was recaptured in Ohio and thought to be at least nine years old.
Nighthawks feed on flying insects at dawn and dusk, with erratic flight patterns similar to bats and swallows.
According to the Audubon Society, nighthawks are declining in population around North America, largely due to pesticides and land-use changes. They have one of the longest migration paths of any North American bird, usually traveling across land to Mexico or Central America.
While their peent call is a typical indicator of their presence, we hadn’t yet heard her cry so we had to identify her on looks alone. Another distinctive feature is the white patch on the wings, just past the bend.
My city is teeming with wildlife. This may be a blessing or a curse, depending on your perspective. On the Cleveland Heights Nextdoor site, you’ll find spirited discussions about whether deer are cute little Bambis or dangerous creatures who will kick your dog and eat your hostas, and whether or not we should live in harmony with the often-sighted coyotes that inhabit our inner suburb.
I have mixed feelings about the coyotes, and skunks (though they are as cute as they are stinky), but I love the deer, owls, squirrels, and rabbits that call our property home.
Last fall, we noticed a squirrel with a missing tail in our front yard, so we named him Bob. Bob set up camp in a nest in our hemlock tree and it brought us joy to see him bopping around the yard.
We didn’t see Bob this spring and worried that his lack of a tail had made him easier prey for the area’s predators, but it turns out he just moved across the property to a nicer nest.
Earlier this year, while tidying up our back gardens for a Memorial Day cookout, my husband startled a fawn, not more than a few days old. It was huddled under a table covered by a tarp, likely placed there by its mother for safety while she went to forage.
It rose unsteadily to its feet and teetered off into the brush, reminding us that a slightly wild yard is far more fascinating than a perfectly manicured lawn, especially if you’re a nature lover. Many a doe has given birth in the safety of that brush over the years.
It is a bit strange that the nighthawk chose our house for her eggs. Nighthawks typically prefer flat gravel roofs and ours is not gravel. Perhaps her instincts were slightly askew, as gravel would have yielded better ventilation.
Once I realized the bird was there, I checked for her each morning. My husband confirmed she had two eggs, which is almost always the case for nighthawks, though they’ll occasionally lay one or three.
There she sat, day after day, in the torrential rain and the scorching sun. Though she was sheltered to one side, the scattered tree debris on which she’d chosen to lay her eggs was right beside the gutter downspout, and we worried the eggs would be carried away by excess water or cooked by the residual heat from the roof.
Mama was highly protective of her eggs. If I got too close, a looming shadow-creature peeking through the window, she would puff herself up and spread her wings to make herself large and intimidating. With that wingspan of close to two feet, she was truly impressive
Despite my intense curiosity, I tried not to disturb her. I didn’t want her to become frightened and abandon her eggs.
Sadly, one of the chicks didn’t live long. Shortly after the eggs hatched, my husband told me he saw a tiny body about a foot away from the mama bird and warned me not to look because he knew it would make me cry.
Soon, I caught a glimpse of the remaining chick — tiny, covered with fuzz, eyes barely open.
Once Chicklet started to walk, Mama moved around her corner of the roof more. She’d let the baby wander a little bit, then follow closely and cover it with her body and wings to let it rest.
One morning, I woke up and found them in the center of the roof, getting some sun, rather than huddled close to the bank of windows. A little bit later, peering out our bathroom window, I saw that she had nudged Chicklet closer to the edge of the roof.
Baby was too small to fly, but I knew it wouldn’t be long. The little one was growing up fast, and one day soon, I’d look out and they would be gone.
What we didn’t expect was that Mama would leave and Chicklet would still be there, sitting forlornly in the center of the roof. We anthropomorphized the situation and determined that the baby looked miserable. We were worried it had been abandoned, that something had happened to the mother (a true hawk, perhaps, or one of the neighborhood owls).
In a panic, I started calling animal rescues. When I couldn’t reach anyone on a Sunday, I texted a family member who works for a neighboring county’s Metroparks. He gave me a couple of recommendations for places to call the next day but thought the bird was probably ok.
Later, my husband quietly put some water out on the roof for the bird, as it was quite hot and we didn’t want it to become dehydrated.
That night, my husband was looking out the window after dark and saw Chicklet start to freak out, hopping up and down, tremendously excited. A dark shadow swooped down, and Mama landed, fed the little one, and flew away.
Ok, not abandoned after all. We were witnessing a natural transition, where the mother leaves the fledgling alone for longer and longer periods of time.
We watched Chicklet grow, and one day, she flew away. We saw her later, swooping around the front yard catching bugs, and my heart sang to know she was doing well.
I was surprised how much missed our birds after they left us. I mourned their absence until the odd sense of grief finally faded.
A few weeks ago, something in my gut said “check the flat roof”. Sure enough, a nighthawk was sitting by the downspout. She eventually laid one egg and then a second, and endured rain, wind, and heat as she waited for her eggs to hatch.
We don’t know if it’s the same bird that nested there last year, if it’s Chicklet, laying her first eggs, or perhaps a different bird entirely.
Either way, we were really glad to see her.
Typically, the male nighthawk stays close, sometimes helping with incubation and often feeding the female while she sits on the eggs. He will often participate in feeding the chicks as well. Last year, we thought we had a deadbeat dad on our hands as we never saw two birds near the nest simultaneously.
We later realized that their markings are very similar so it’s difficult to tell them apart. This year, I think I saw the male when he reared up, hopped off the eggs, and charged at the window where I dared to peek out at him. The female, though she would raise her wings in response to my presence, never exhibited such behavior.
Both chicks survived this time, and we’ve enjoyed, once again, watching them grow. They’re too big, now, for the mama to fully cover them, and they’re beginning to move around the roof on their own.
Soon, Mama Bird will leave them alone. Not long after that, they will fly, and my husband can return to the roof repairs he abandoned after the eggs hatched.
We hope to see nighthawks on our roof every year, but we’re concerned about them. According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey and as reported by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, nighthawk populations declined by 1% each year between 1966 and 2019 for an overall population decrease of 48%.
We’re glad our flat roof can serve as a welcoming breeding ground for these fascinating birds.
Look to the skies— you’ll get the best sightings around dawn or dusk — and you might glimpse a nighthawk, feeding on flying insects, making that telltale peent sound, swooping erratically through the shadows.
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