Bird O'clock

Flying Insect Control: Discovering the Fascinating Antillean Nighthawk

When it comes to observing birds, distinguishing them from one another can be a challenging task. With so many species and subspecies, its essential to learn the characteristics that make each bird unique.

In this article, well be examining the Antillean Nighthawk, a bird that is commonly found in the West Indies. Well be looking at how to correctly identify this bird, its behavior, and the different plumage stages that it goes through.


Field Identification

The Antillean Nighthawk is a small bird with a length of around 9.4 inches and a weight of 1.2 ounces. Its wingspan is approximately 20 inches, and it has a short tail.

The birds plumage is predominantly grayish-brown, with a distinctive white throat and a black, scalloped band running from the side of its neck to its breast. One of the notable characteristics of the Antillean Nighthawk is the large, white spot on the tip of its tail feathers.

Similar Species

The Antillean Nighthawk can be confused with other species, but there are a few key differences that set it apart. For example, the Common Nighthawk, another species found in North America, has a more extensive white band across the throat, and its wingspan is slightly wider.

It also has a more robust and sturdy-looking body compared to the slender Antillean Nighthawk.


Like most bird species, the Antillean Nighthawk passes through several different plumage stages throughout its life.


Juvenile birds have a dark plumage, which slowly lightens as they develop into adults. During the fall, the bird undergoes a primary molt, where it sheds and replaces its feathers.

During this time, the bird may have a darker, more mottled appearance. The nape of the neck is an area where significant changes can occur during the molting process.

Adult males have a distinct white patch on the back of their necks, and this is a feature that improves with age, so it becomes more visible as the bird matures. In contrast, females have no white patch on their neck, and their plumage is slightly duller.


The Antillean Nighthawk is a bird of flight, often seen soaring and catching insects on the wing. They fly at low altitudes, and their flight is guzzled and erratic, making them easy to spot in the sky.

Their hunting success rate is impressive, and they can easily pluck insects from foliage without breaking their flight. Theyre active at dawn and dusk, but can sometimes be seen throughout the day.

During the winter months, they can be seen in large flocks, which can number in the hundreds. Theyre avid insect-eaters, and are known for their valuable contribution in controlling mosquito populations.


The Antillean Nighthawk is a fascinating bird that is both beautiful and useful. By learning about its characteristics and behavior, its easy to identify and appreciate this valuable species.

As with any bird, its essential to respect their space and habitats, so we can continue to enjoy their presence for years to come.

Systematics History

The Antillean Nighthawk was initially described and classified as Caprimulgus gundlachii by Jean Cabanis and Ferdinand Heine in 1860 in honor of Juan Gundlach, a famous naturalist who collected specimens in Cuba. Later on, the bird was reclassified as Chordeiles gundlachii, which is its current scientific name.

Geographic Variation

The Antillean Nighthawk has a relatively broad distribution, with the species being endemic to the West Indies and the Caribbean. The bird has been observed in Cuba, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, the Virgin Islands, the Bahamas, and several smaller Caribbean islands.


The Antillean Nighthawk is divided into several subspecies, which are primarily distinguished by differences in size and plumage. There are three recognized subspecies:

Chordeiles gundlachii gundlachii: This is the nominate subspecies, which is found in Cuba.

Chordeiles gundlachii andrewsi: This subspecies occurs in Jamaica. Chordeiles gundlachii clarus: This subspecies is found in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and the eastern Lesser Antilles.

Related Species

The Antillean Nighthawk belongs to the family Caprimulgidae, commonly referred to as nightjars or goatsuckers. This family contains over 100 species and is distributed worldwide.

Some of the closest relatives of the Antillean Nighthawk include the Common Nighthawk (Chordeiles minor), Lesser Nighthawk (Chordeiles acutipennis), and the Common Pauraque (Nyctidromus albicollis).

Historical Changes to Distribution

The Antillean Nighthawk’s distribution has gone through significant changes over the years. Early reports suggested that the species was abundant throughout its range, including Puerto Rico, where it was common in 1930.

However, by the 1980s, the population had declined significantly, leading some conservationists to classify the Antillean Nighthawk as a threatened species. One of the primary factors contributing to the decline of the Antillean Nighthawk was habitat loss.

The bird’s natural range has been significantly reduced due to land clearing for agriculture, logging, and urban development. The loss of suitable habitat is particularly evident in Havana, Cuba, where the species was once common but is now rare due to the destruction of mangroves and wetlands.

Another factor contributing to the decline in populations is disturbance. Antillean Nighthawks are sensitive to light pollution, which disrupts their foraging and breeding behavior.

They are also susceptible to disturbances from humans and domestic animals that pass through their habitats. Despite these challenges, some populations of the Antillean Nighthawk have shown resilience and even expansion in recent years.

In Jamaica, the population appears to be stable, with the birds nesting in urban areas and adapting well to human disturbances. In Puerto Rico, the species is still considered threatened, but conservation efforts have led to a rebound in some areas, where habitat restoration and predator control have improved the species’ chances of survival.


The Antillean Nighthawk is a captivating bird with a rich history and a critical place in its ecosystem. While its populations have declined due to habitat loss and disturbance, efforts continue to save the species through conservation and restoration efforts.

With proper management practices and public awareness, the Antillean Nighthawk’s populations can increase, and the species can continue to thrive in its native habitat.


Antillean Nighthawks are found in a range of habitats, but their preferred habitats include dry, shrubby areas, savannas, forests, and coastal regions. In Cuba, they can be seen in mangrove forests, while in Puerto Rico, they are commonly found in coastal areas, dry forests, and grasslands.

They prefer open areas with low vegetation for hunting insects and nesting. Moreover, they are capable of adapting to urban environments and can often be seen nesting on rooftops, ledges, and other man-made structures.

Movements and Migration

Antillean Nighthawks are non-migratory birds and generally remain in their breeding range throughout the year. However, there are a few reports of some movement and dispersal of juveniles, which may occur shortly after they fledge.

Juveniles have been observed up to 60 miles from their birth site, suggesting some level of migration. Interestingly, both adults and juveniles have been recorded traveling up to 500 miles during tropical storms, which suggests that they may be able to navigate by using external cues.

In the West Indies, populations of Antillean Nighthawks are known to group and migrate to other islands. For example, in Puerto Rico, the species moves seasonally from lowland nesting habitats to higher-elevation habitats during the non-breeding season.

In Jamaica, Antillean Nighthawks have been observed roving in large flocks, and populations in the Lesser Antilles reportedly migrate from the northern islands to the southern ones. It’s important to note that some populations of Antillean Nighthawks in Cuba may engage in nomadic behaviors rather than true migration.

This means that they move in search of food or nesting sites, but their movements are not consistently seasonal or directional.


Antillean Nighthawks are crepuscular birds, meaning that they are most active during dawn and dusk. They are known for their impressive aerial acrobatics, which they use to catch flying insects.

They have a unique hunting style, which involves flying low over the ground or water and sweeping insects into their wide-open mouths. They typically fly at low altitudes, rarely flying above the treetops.

During the breeding season, males establish territories and engage in courtship flights to attract females. Males will fly high into the sky and then dive down while making a vocalization with their wings to attract females.

Upon pairing, females and males will establish nesting sites, which are often located on the ground or on ledges. The breeding season varies by location, but it typically occurs from March to September.


Antillean Nighthawks are fascinating birds with unique behaviors and habitat preferences. While they are non-migratory, they have been observed engaging in some level of movement and dispersal.

Their dependence on open areas with low vegetation makes them susceptible to habitat loss and disturbance, making it essential to protect their habitats through conservation and restoration efforts. By understanding their behavior and movements, we can ensure that these magnificent birds continue to thrive in their native range.

Diet and Foraging


Antillean Nighthawks are insectivorous birds that rely heavily on flying insects for their diet. To capture prey, they employ a unique foraging technique known as hawking.

During hawking, the birds fly low over the ground or water, feeding on the wing by snapping up insects from the air or foliage. They sometimes hunt in flocks, swarming around insect swarms and feeding in coordination with one another.

They have an impeccable flight ability, making it easier to fly sideways and to make sharp turns to catch their prey.


The Antillean Nighthawk’s diet consists of insects such as moths, flies, mosquitoes, and other small flying insects. They are known for ingesting large quantities of insects in a day, making them efficient in controlling insect populations, especially mosquitoes.

However, their diet varies slightly within their distribution ranges, depending on the availability of different insect species. In Puerto Rio, they feed heavily on the introduced Africanized honey bees, which supplement their insect diet.

Metabolism and Temperature Regulation

Antillean Nighthawks are endothermic animals, meaning that they are capable of generating their body heat through the breakdown of food. This ability puts some requirements on their metabolism, as they need to ingest enough prey to sustain their metabolic demand.

They are also capable of regulating their body temperature to maintain optimal conditions for their metabolic activities. Temperature regulation mainly occurs through vasodilation, which involves the dilation of blood vessels in the bill and feet for heat dissipation.

On the other hand, birds’ insulation also plays a critical role in conserving heat energy. Sounds and Vocal



Antillean Nighthawks are known for their distinct vocalizations, which they use for communication and courting. The birds produce a distinct nasal call, a “peent” or “wheent” sound followed by a slight upward inflection.

Males produce a more elaborate display used to attract females, flying high into the air while making vocalizations with their wings. The patterns of the wing noises differ between birds and can be used to distinguish individuals.

Both males and females use vocalizations for territory defense and communication between parents and offspring. Antillean Nighthawks also use vocalizations to communicate with their young, which is critical for their survival.

When the parent bird arrives with food, the young emit a begging call that signals their readiness for feeding. In response, the parent will regurgitate a small amount of food into the young bird’s mouth.

Communication between adults and their young helps to ensure the healthy growth and development of the offspring.


Antillean Nighthawks are remarkable birds with unique characteristics and behaviors. Their reliance on flying insects makes them invaluable predators in their habitat, aiding in the control of mosquito and fly populations.

Their foraging strategy of hawking and ability to fly with remarkable agility allows them to feed effectively on insects in the air. Additionally, their distinct vocalizations help them communicate with each other, promoting social interactions and mate attraction.

By understanding these elements of the Antillean Nighthawk’s behavior, we can better appreciate and protect these fascinating birds.



Antillean Nighthawks exhibit agile and darting flight patterns, making quick and sharp turns, allowing them to catch flying insects in mid-air. They fly low to the ground, often flying over fields, water bodies, or along forest edges as they actively search for prey.

Their short legs and large feet make them poorly adapted to terrestrial locomotion, and they only use their feet for perching, or to shuffle their eggs as they incubate.

Self Maintenance

Antillean Nighthawks are regularly grooming themselves, using their bills to clean and oil their feathers to maintain them in good condition. Their feathers’ condition is essential for maintaining their insulative properties and aerodynamic features, which they rely on during flight.



Antillean Nighthawks exhibit agonistic behavior towards other birds, particularly during the breeding season when males aggressively defend territories. Males will engage in dramatic aerial displays, such as dives, spirals, and swoops, as they try to drive off other males and attract potential mates.

During these displays, the males produce loud wing-clapping or “booming” sounds, which can be heard from a significant distance. This booming sound is produced by the male clapping his wings together above his back as he dives.



Antillean Nighthawks have monogamous mating systems in which males compete for females during the breeding season. After the males establish a breeding territory, they court females by performing aerial displays, flying high in the sky, and producing vocalizations through wing sound-producing feathers.

Once a pair has formed, the male will help to build the nest and bring food for the female during the incubation period.


Antillean Nighthawks breed from March to September, varying by location within their range. Their breeding season is closely associated with the rainy season, which coincides with the emergence of a large quantity of flying insects, which are critical for the birds to feed their young.

Both parents will help to build the nest, which can be found on the ground, tree branches, or rocky ledges. Nests are shallow depressions with a few twigs present, which may be further scattered around the vicinity of the nest.

The female lays two eggs, which are incubated by both parents for about 18-22 days. The hatchlings are born with downy feathers and stay in the nest for another 18-22 days before fledging.

Demography and Populations

The Antillean Nighthawk’s population has been dwindling due to habitat loss and human activities. For example, reports show that in 1985, the Antillean Nighthawk species was restricted to just three breeding populations in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

Currently, the bird is considered a threatened species, and conservation efforts have been put in place to help protect it. Moreover, land-use alteration and changes in ecosystems are major threats to the populations.

These threats affect the availability of prey and nesting sites, leading to nest failure and population declines. There is also the risk of ingesting contaminants such as pesticides, which may cause health problems for the birds.

Protecting the birds’ habitats and reducing the use of insecticides and other contaminants will greatly benefit the population and help in preserving the species.


Antillean Nighthawks are fascinating birds with unique and varied behaviors. Their agility and flight capabilities enable them to feed on insects mid-air, while their vocalizations allow for communication during hunting, mating, and courting behaviors.

Understanding these bird’s behaviors, habitat, and population dynamics are crucial to efforts geared towards their conservation. Protecting their habitat, reducing external threats, and preserving their populations will ensure their continued presence in their natural range for generations to come.

The Antillean Nighthawk is a captivating bird with unique and varied behaviors that have adapted it to survive in the West Indies. This species is a crucial player in ecosystem health and helps to control insect populations such as mosquitoes, which can cause serious diseases.

However, this bird has come under threat due to the destruction of its natural habitat and exposure to contaminants. Efforts to protect the Antillean Nighthawk’s habitats and reduce external threats are critical in preserving its populations.

By preserving this species, we play a crucial role in maintaining the balance of the West Indies ecosystem, reducing the spread of pandemics and enjoying their unique presence for generations to come.

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