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Common Nighthawks No Longer Common

Can corporate partnerships bring them back?

Common Nighthawk fledgling on the Konza Prairie, Kansas.

Rebecca Lohnes

Common Nighthawks were once common in the cities and suburbs of Upstate New York, and ranged across North America. Twenty-five years ago, they flew over the Cornell campus every summer evening, swooping and diving to catch insects and find mates. Now they are disappearing over much of the northeastern United States.

Because they are most active at dusk, Common Nighthawks are poorly represented in Breeding Bird Surveys, making it difficult to discover why their populations have declined. One hypothesis is that the replacement of gravel roofing materials with rubberized membranes makes rooftops no longer suitable for nesting. This simple hypothesis suggests a possible solution to their plight.

In the first two years of Rebecca Lohnes’s Ph.D. research in the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell, we have been studying Common Nighthawk nesting behavior. Along with collaborator Brett Sandercock of Kansas State University, we have begun to investigate the use of naturally-occurring gravel patches as nest sites by nighthawks in the Konza Prairie, a native grassland in Kansas. Next, we hope to collaborate with corporations to initiate a large-scale nighthawk research effort to discover whether placing gravel nest sites on flat-topped “Big Box” stores will bring Common Nighthawks back to regions where they have all but disappeared.

Stores with chains spanning the nighthawk range are well positioned to participate with minimal effort, simply by placing and monitoring gravel patches on their roofs. If this simple artificial habitat feature helps to restore nighthawk populations, corporate partnerships with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology could have a huge impact on this fascinating crepuscular bird that has been a treasured part of the avifauna of cities and suburbs for much of the last century.

Rebecca Lohnes, graduate student, Cornell University, and Janis Dickinson, associate professor of Natural Resources and director of Citizen Science at Cornell Lab of Ornithology


For permission to reprint all or part of this article, please contact Laura Erickson, editor, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 159 Sapsucker Woods Rd., Ithaca, NY, 14850. Phone: (607) 254-1114. email:

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