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The vanished nighthawks of First Hill

Common Nighthawk
, originally uploaded by kingernorth.

It has been a busy week at CHS with lots of big news — some of it quite heavy. Thanks goodness for this lovely little essay which fluttered in from CHS history contributor Dotty DeCoster. Even if the nighthawks were still living in Seattle, they’d have already migrated away from this wet and dreary Pacific Northwest weather until spring — when they used to return and, now, you can miss them like Dotty does. We’re glad the swallows still come back to keep us company.

I’ve been reading Edward B. Dunn’s memoir called 1121 Union recently, and he asks a question:  “We always had nighthawks in summer on First Hill and in the country, too.  Where can they have gone? . . . Anyway  I miss them.  They can outdive any airplane, and I used to love watching them swooping over the housetops and abruptly coming out of the dive with a thrilling roar.” (p. 53) 

Dunn was born in 1904 at 1121 Union and lived there for several decades. (southwest corner of Union and Minor.)  My old friend, who lived as a child near Lake Union and most of her adult life near 17th and Denny, taught me to go looking for nighthawks at dusk above the rooftops near the top of Capitol Hill during the 1960s. They are gone now, gone completely from King County and only found rarely in Western Washington.

The Seattle Audubon bird web describes the common nighthawk (Chordeiles minor) as “a cryptic bird most often seen in flight, when it can be easily identified by the white bar across each long, pointed wing.  This mottled gray and black bird has large eyes.  It also has a tiny beak with a large gape. .  .”  They forage in flight on flying insects.  They have a loud, distinctive call.  At about 9 inches, common nighthawks are bigger than swallows and spectacular flyers.  They also have an odd habit while perching.  Rather than sitting on tree limbs or wires or rooftops facing you (with the perch on the horizontal) they sit sideways, aligned along the perch.  Called “goatsuckers” some places, they used to be a delightful addition to the August falling star show viewed from the Capitol Hill ridge crest.

They are odd birds that like open country (with lots of flying bugs) and don’t nest – they lay their eggs on gravel.  Both male and female birds help feed the young and care for them.  In the cities, they tended to like gravel or pebble roofs for reproducing, or infrequently disturbed gravel piles or alleys.  They seem to have been birds of a certain city development period.  They appeared here when the forest cover was opened up and disappeared once the gravel was smoothly paved over, the swampland drained, and the flying insects greatly reduced.  Peterson’s Western Birds says they winter in Argentina.  Apparently, nighthawks still are fairly common in eastern Washington, if you have an opportunity to go for a walk at dusk on the other side of the mountains you might see some.

In the meantime, swallows remain. They swoop over the large lawn in Volunteer Park between the art museum and the conservatory and you can see them during the day diving nearly to grass height as they catch insects mid-air.  At dusk they appear out of the ravine when one is standing at the overlook across from the cemetery entrance on 15th Avenue East.

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2 thoughts on “The vanished nighthawks of First Hill

  1. Common Nighthawks were just on the way out in Seattle when I began birdwatching at age 8 (16 years ago). They were infrequent but I remember watching them over my backyard in North Seattle. Makes me sorta sad.

    Believe it or not they are most likely Owl relatives. Their order: Caprimulgiformes means literally in latin “goat sucker,” stemming from a european belief that they sucked goats milk (because European Nightjars had a habit of roosting in stables near stock animals).

  2. Thanks for this post Dotty. When I was a young lad living in Wallingford directly across the street from Hamilton Junior High School our family spent many summer evenings on our front porch watching the Nighthawks diving above the boy’s gym. We never saw them anywhere but in the air, and speculated on where they came from and disappeared to each evening, which I now realize must have been the gym roof itself.