The Mythos of Nighthawks



There's this thing that nighthawk researchers encounter.  People don't know what a nighthawk is. Confusion about nightjar naming conventions is nothing new.

In fact, nightjars are often called goat suckers, presumably because people feared they were feeding from their livestock at night.  The irony is that nightjars are insectivores and were likely feeding from the insects attracted to their goats, providing an ecosystem service.

Sometimes it's because they have another name for this bird.  Here's an anecdote from a fellow researcher:

"I once ran into an old moonshiner while netting bats in West Virginia, and he told me this long story about the bullbats coming through in huge flocks in fall. It took me about 15 minutes to figure out what the heck he was talking about (in fairness, probably most of that was due to his West Virginia moonshiner accent). He was adamant they were really bats." – JB

Bullbats, in case you didn't know, are another name for nighthawks.  They have many names. Here's a list, courtesy of Idaho Fish and Game:

Common Nighthawk

Asseri Nighthawk


Cherrie's Nighthawk

Florida Nighthawk

Howell's Nighthawk

Mosquito Hawk



Pacific Nighthawk

Sennett's Nighthawk

Will O The Wisp

Booming Nighthawk


Burnt-land Bird

Eastern Nighthawk

Long-winged Goatsucker

Moth Hunter




Western Nighthawk


Pork-and-beans struck some of us researchers as particularly funny. That's what background actors say when they have to mouth words but not say anything whilst looking busy. Goes along with the ubiquity of nighthawks, once upon a time, I think. Another researcher noted that could be a bastardization of the nighthawk calls,

peent and boom


Finally, there's this account that came up in my nighthawk Google alert.  I'm always looking for others' research, but occasionally I get a fascinating bit of folklore:

"The Rolling Rock story of the Blackfoot explains why the Common Nighthawk (

Chordeiles minor

), referred to in the story as a bullbat, has such a small beak and sizeable mouth. It is said that Napi was cold so he borrowed a robe from a large rock but would not return it.  The rock got angry and began to chase Napi, so he called the nighthawks for help.  After the birds destroyed the rock that was rolling in his pursuit, Napi rewarded the nighthawks by pulling their mouths wide and pinching off their beaks so that they were "pretty and queer looking" (Grinnell 1913: 166-167). In another version of the story, Old Man asked the nighthawks for help, but subsequently changed his mind and accused the birds of spoiling his fun by destroying the rolling rock.  He punished them by tearing off their bills and splitting their mouths open wide, accounting for their appearance today (Wissler and Duvall 1908: 24-25). The nighthawks later retaliated by defecating on Old Man as they flew over his head.  Today, Blackfoot elders ascribe great significance to archaeological sites where Common Nighthawks nest."


The Winged: An Upper Missouri River Ethno-ornithology

 (K Chandler, WF Murray, MN Zedeño, R James… – 2017)



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