Neonicotinoids and Nighthawks


What are neonicotinoids?  They are a class of pesticides often used in agriculture and horticulture, and increasingly biologists, conservationists and regulators are seeing connections between the use of “neonics” and the decline of honeybees and insectivorous birds (a guild that includes Common Nighthawks).

Government agencies like Portland and Ontario are starting to take notice of the research on neonicotinoids and instituting bans on the use of neonicotinoids or encouraging a curtail on the use of this class of pesticides.


Winter is Coming


Missouri River in winter

The river hasn’t frozen yet, but the temperatures are getting lower.  It makes me think about how the animals in South Dakota survive the winter.  Of course, most birds, including the Common Nighthawk, migrate.

However, many amphibians survive the winter by hibernating, including the Chorus Frog, Woodhouse Toad and Tiger Salamander.  Of the amphibians, the Woodhouse Toad and Chorus Frog  actually freeze their bodies’ fluids to tolerate the winter, while the Tiger Salamander hibernates at temperatures below 5 degrees Celsius.

Speaking of hibernation, the only bird to hibernate worldwide is the Common Poorwill.  Incidentally, the first person to publish this phenomenon?  Meriwether Lewis, when the expedition made their way through the Dakotas in 1804, made note in his journal. 

Other animals view the South Dakota winter as downright balmy.  The Dark-eyed Junco and the Snow Bunting come here in the winter and breed in the Arctic. If the conditions are right (i.e. it’s cold enough and the lemmings population is high during the breeding season when chick clutch sizes are larger), the Snowy Owl makes an appearance.

Some birds are fine with South Dakota year-round, like the ubiquitous and cosmopolitan House Sparrow and the more elusive Horned Lark.

Other birds find the Prairie Pothole region (like the vast flocks of Snow Geese and American White Pelicans passing overhead every day) and the Missouri River’s riparian forests and woodlots important stopover points in their migration.

I am an Egyptian Vulture!


Photo by Kalojan Hristov.  

Well, not really.  But, you know what I mean.  Silly Buzzfeed quizzes are great, and in fact, you can take a quiz to find out which endangered vulture you are, based upon your diet, social habits, and vacation preferences.

In fact, Egyptian Vultures are one of seven vulture species in Africa alone that are on the verge of extinction.

Why should we care?

  • Vultures clean the environment of many pathogens by consuming decaying matter.
  • Vultures have cultural importance.  They are considered sacred by many religions, including  Islam.  Muslims respect them because a vulture saved Mohammed from being attacked by a golden eagle in the desert. Since then, the vulture is a symbol of wisdom and courage.
  • Scavengers are another ecological guild (i.e. a group of organisms that consume similar food in a related way) that are understudied, along with aerial insectivores (e.g. Common Nighthawk).  I recently attended the North American Ornithological Conference in Washington, D.C. Of the thousands of researchers who presented, there was only one presentation that mentioned a scavenger (i.e. California Condor). What?  No love for the majestic Turkey Vulture or the handsome Black Vulture? In case you were wondering, there were 59 presentations on the various warbler species.

As mentioned above, many vultures are in serious decline worldwide, especially in Africa and Asia.  Of the 23 species worldwide, 61% are threatened with extinction.  The most common concerns?  Shooting, deliberate and non-deliberate poisoning by humans.  Here in North America, the attempts to reintroduce the California Condor is limited by the legality of lead ammunition, which is consumed by Condors to lethal results.  It is harmful to humans, too.

In case you are totally discouraged, check out this video of an Andean Condor being released in La Payunia Reserve in Argentina.  It’ll cheer you back up!

What are Nighthawks?

Sometimes when I approach property managers about searching their fields and rooftops for nighthawk nests, I am greeted with a moment of silence.  Nighthawks are an enigma for most people.  So, I say Common Nighthawks are neither strictly nocturnal nor hawks, and they are becoming less and less common in most areas.  One land owner expressed concern that these “hawks” were preying on his Ring-necked Pheasants, an introduced species that brings in much tourism to South Dakota for the fall hunting season and is ironically the state bird of South Dakota.  So, I try to explain that nighthawks are the distant cousin of the Eastern Whip-poor-will, the noisy bird that keeps you up at night when you camp down by the Missouri River. When that is met by another blank stare, I explain that nighthawks are the noisy birds that eat insects mostly around sunset like giant swallows.  Mostly, I have to search for nests with the property manager and flush the nighthawk.  Then, they are amazed that this bird has been hiding on their property right under their nose.  Ah, the importance of research and outreach.

Coincidentally, I stumbled across this excellent raptor guide from the Hawk Migration Association of North America. Note the absence of Common, Lesser and Antillean Nighthawks.