Photograph by Anthony Mercieca, Getty Images
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A lesser nighthawk rests on a nest with her eggs.

Photograph by Anthony Mercieca, Getty Images

Lesser Nighthawk

About the Lesser Nighthawk

This bird’s trilling twilight call is a familiar spring and summer sound of the desert. It often congregates at water sources morning and evening, rarely active during midday. It is the only breeding nighthawk across most of the extreme southwestern United States lowlands, but limited overlap with the common presents an identification challenge. Polytypic (7 ssp.; texensis in North America). Length 8–9.2".


Generally dark gray to brownish gray above mottled with black, grayish white, or buff; crown and upper back darkest, paler markings more concentrated on upperwing coverts, scapulars, tertials. Secondaries and primaries dark brownish gray, secondaries and basal portions of primaries spotted with buff. Underparts generally buffy, finely barred dark brown; chest and malar area darker and grayer with whitish to buff spotting. Underwing coverts buff mottled with brown. Adult male: white throat, subterminal tail band, and primary patch about two-thirds out from bend of wing to wing tip. Adult female: buff throat and wing patch; tail band reduced or absent. Juvenile: upperparts uniformly buffy-gray with fine dark markings and spots.

Similar Species

Some common nighthawks essentially identical in general coloration and size, but have proportionately longer, more slender, more pointed wings, and primary patch is farther from wing tip. Most commons lack buff spotting on secondaries and primaries, do not have buffy underwings.


Call: (males only) whistled trill, in short isolated bursts or longer series of bursts. Flight display a bleating bao-b-bao-bao.

Status and Distribution

Common. Breeding: arid lowland scrub, farmland. Migration: in spring, arrives early March–mid-May, peak in April; departs early August–late October, peak mid-August–mid-September. Winter: occurs year-round from northwestern and central Mexico south to northern South America; rare in extreme southern United States, including Florida. Vagrant: casual/accidental to Alaska, Colorado, Oklahoma, Ontario, West Virginia, Bermuda.



—From the National Geographic book Complete Birds of North America, 2006