Student research sheds light on the nighthawk - species at risk

By Costa Maragos Posted: August 16, 2017 6:00 a.m.

Gabriel Foley, biology master’s candidate with a nighthawk, a species at risk.
Gabriel Foley, biology master’s candidate with a nighthawk, a species at risk. Photos courtesy of Gabriel Foley

Much like the birds he studies, Gabriel Foley is learning to adjust to his new surroundings after a very long flight.

Foley, a master's of biology candidate, has now settled into a new phase of his academic adventure as a QE II scholar at the University of Pretoria in South Africa.

The one-year posting will allow him to build on the bird research he’s been conducting at the U of R over the past few years.

Foley, under the supervision of Dr. Mark Brigham, has been studying habitat selection in the common nighthawk, a species at risk in Canada. The Nighthawk is a challenging bird to study given its preference to fly at night time. Still, Foley has made strides in helping add critical information to the Nighthawk database that might lead to saving this bird from becoming an endangered species.

Gabe, what got you interested in researching Nighthawks?

The project was initially developed by Kevin Hannah, from Environment Canada. I've always found bird behaviour to be fascinating, so a project on how a bird chooses habitat seemed perfect. Additionally, little is known about Nighthawks and they are a declining species at risk, so there is a pertinent need to collect data on their population status and trends, habitat preferences and other life history aspects.

What makes these birds so interesting?

There’s a “pertinent need to collect data” on the Nighthawk to help stem the bird’s population decline.

They are aerial insectivores or birds that are flying while they catch and eat insects. They are also crepuscular, which means they are most active at dawn and, in their case, especially dusk. They have territory displays where they dive towards the ground, then swoop back up while cupping their wings. The cupped wings create a loud, low booming noise. They migrate to South America, although researchers are just starting to figure out exactly where, and what route they take to get there.

What’s the biggest challenge researching Nighthawk habits?

Nighthawks, like many aerial insectivores, appear to be declining precipitously in Canada and North America. However, because of their crepuscular habits, they aren't detected on normal bird surveys that are done in the morning. Additionally, it appears that a substantial portion of their population breeds in the boreal forest - a huge forest that covers nearly half of Canada's landmass but is notoriously difficult to access and survey. As a result, no one really knows just how many nighthawks there are or precisely how much their population is declining. My project is determining whether Nighthawks are more abundant in burned or unburned forest - spoiler alert: they like burns - and what habitat characteristics they are associating with in these burned regions. With that information, surveyors can start to target regions of the boreal that are more likely to contain Nighthawks, to start to understand their population trends better.

Nighthawks are a species at risk. What might be the theories for its population decline?

Nighthawk 2
Nighthawks are difficult birds to survey because they are most active in the evening.

The biggest reason for their decline is likely habitat loss - nearly all native prairie has been converted to cropland - and probably pesticide use. Virtually all aerial insectivores, including swifts, swallows, flycatchers and nightjars, are declining. In fact, this group of birds is the fastest declining group in Canada. Additionally, this group isn't related by taxonomy, but instead by behaviour - they all catch insects in the air. It seems logical that a decrease in their food supply would be the common factor linking their declines, and although research is underway currently to address it, it is such a large, permeating problem it is difficult to answer explicitly.

What have you found so far with your research?

Nighthawks prefer forest that has recently burned, probably because this creates large open areas that they tend to prefer in other parts of their range. Nighthawks tend to associate with open ground, open canopy, and more logs on the ground. This is probably because open ground provides space for them to nest, open canopy makes it easier and safer for them to fly in, and more logs on the ground provide more places for roosting Nighthawks to sit.

What are you hoping will come out of your research?

This research is a great first step for Nighthawk conservation in Canada's boreal forest. Very little is known about Nighthawks breeding in this habitat, and yet it contributes a substantial portion of their population. Understanding what habitat Nighthawks are choosing will allow managers to target areas for monitoring populations, increasing monitoring effectiveness and efficiency. Through this monitoring, we'll be able to better understand why Nighthawks are declining so quickly and help reverse this trend.

For avid birdwatchers out there, how challenging is it for them to track the Nighthawk?

 Surveying for Nighthawks is extremely beginner-friendly - you only need to know one call. And it is a great way to get out and see an iconic prairie bird and watch the prairie sun set.

Foley’s research has been funded by Environment Canada, Goldcorp, Mitacs and the Inland Banding Association
If you’re interested in helping track the Nighthawk, you can find more information at or by visiting here.

Follow Gabe’s bird research adventures on Twitter. He’s @birdnirdfoley.

His fieldwork in South Africa is currently taking place at the northern end of the country, researching an abundant bird called a white-browed sparrow-weaver.