Antillean Nighthawk

Content for this page researched and created by Robert Larrimer

              Chordeiles gundlachii, more commonly referred to as the Antillean Nighthawk, is a very interesting and beautiful species of bird belonging to a group known as nightjars (Kaufman).  Nightjars are a group of nocturnal birds that belong to the family Caprimulgidae.  Two bird species with which the Antillean Nighthawk is often confused also belong to the Caprimulgidae family.  These are the Lesser Nighthawk (Chordeiles acutipennis) and the Common Nighthawk (Chordeiles minor).  The first time that the Antillean Nighthawk was considered its own species was in 1982 when C. gundlachii was split from C. minor (DeBenedictics).

Antillean Nighthawk sitting on a branch
Photo by Kati Fleming

Up until 1982, the Antillean nighthawk was just considered to be a subspecies of the Common Nighthawk (Guzy).  Although these bird species look similar to each other, C. gundlachii stands out from the others because of the unique vocalizations it makes (Pieplow).  The Antillean nighthawk makes a very unique “killy-ka-dick” and “chitty chit” call that it often repeats a few times during territorial and courtship display flights. (Kaufman).  While a C. gundlachii is making sounds, its white throat patch is puffed out during each call.  This is also a visual signal to potential mates and other rivals (Bouglouan).  Although the Antillean Nighthawk and Common Nighthawk are similar, C. gundlachii is often seen as being very hostile towards Common Nighthawks when defending its territory (Plockelman).

             Chordeiles gundlachii are interesting looking birds.  They are dimorphic, meaning they have two different ways they can appear.  One is grayish color, the other is “tawny” (Cleere & Kirwan).   Mature nighthawks are a dark brown color.  The rest of the bird’s body consists of lighter brown, gray, and white speckled feathers.  They have a black beak with dark brown eyes.  Their in-flight feathers are also a dark brown with a white strip across both wings.

An Antillean Nighthawk flying
Photo by Jerry Oldenettel

They have a forked tail with a white bar across it.   You can distinguish the males from the females by the bright white ring around the males neck. The females neck ring is a lighter brown.  Females also have a lot less noticeable white bars going across their tails and wings in flight (Bouglouan).  Juveniles of this species are either a dull brown with grayish marks, or grayish with some dark marks (Garrido). They are similar to the adults except for their narrow wings tipped with white, and the lack of the white bar on their tail (Bouglouan).  Due to their unique and erratic flight behavior, C. gundlachii are on high priority watch list, to try to figure out their movements (Rich).  When fully grown, these birds are about 8 inches in length (Johnson) and weigh about 2 ounces or an 1/8 of a pound (birdsofnorthamerica).  They have a wingspan between 20-22 inches which is more than double their body length (Johnson).  Like the Common Nighthawk, C. gundlachii catches insects like moths, beetles, mosquitos, and many others (planetofbirds) for food while flying at a very fast and erratic pace (Kaufman).  C. gundlachii have been seen hunting alone, in pairs, and even in small flocks (Bouglouan) often at dusk or dawn in open areas, such as beaches, scooping insects with their large mouths out of the air (Guzy).  Flocks of nighthawks are called a “kettle” (birdsofnorthamerica).  In some of the Caribbean Islands, the locals know C. gundlachii as the “Mosquito Hawk” due to the large numbers of mosquitoes eaten by these birds (Guzy).

Nightjars don’t construct a nest like other bird species, and this is why they are found where they are (Johnson).  They lay their eggs on the bare ground or on certain flat gravel roofs (Kaufman).  In Puerto Rico there was a nighthawk that was seen nesting on rocky substrate of a trail in the southern parts of a forest.

Nighthawks flying and standing on a rocky area
Photo by Richard Crossley

The elevation was 460 meters which was high for this species to be nesting (Delannoy).  This specific nighthawk can be observed in recently cleared areas, cane fields, and pastures.  It can also be found on undeveloped open ground or in places like airports.  In the West Indies, they can be seen in open woods and farmland (Johnson).  C. gundlachii’s wide range makes it difficult for the species to become endangered or extinct (Kirwan).  Because of the large range where C. gundlachii can be found, they have a very stable population trend (birdlife).  During winter it is believed that C. gundlachii migrate even further south into South America (Planetofbirds).  Antillean nighthawks are not endemic to any countries, and therefore we aren’t sure where they specifically came from (Buden).  The breeding range for C. gundlachii extends from the southern Florida Keys, which because of large clearing areas in the last few years has seen a slight population increase (Plockelman), to the Greater Antilles, to the Cayman Islands.  These birds can commonly be seen during the summer months in the Bahamas (Buden, “The Birds of Rum Cay, Bahama Islands”).   They can be found in the West Indies throughout the spring and summer seasons.  Antillean nighthawks have also been seen in Louisiana and in 1986 were accepted into state records (Schulenberg).  Some other countries that C. gundlachii can be found are: Aruba, British Virgin Islands, and Cuba.  They can be seen in Cuba between April and August in open savannas and canefields (Cleere & Kirwan).

Although breeding behaviors are not entirely known for C. gundlachii, it is accepted that the behaviors resemble those of the Common Nighthawk. In courtship display, the male will fly  high in the air, and dive back down quickly, making a “rushing” or “booming” noise, much quieter than that of male Common Nighthawk’s courtship display (planetofbirds).  Breeding takes place between April and August in the Florida Keys, Bahamas, and Cuba.  Some C. gundlachii have been seen still breeding in the Florida Keys until September or October, which is several months after their normal breeding time (Plockelman).  Antillean Nighthawks lay an average of 2 eggs but have been known to lay as many as 3.  The eggs are a pale olive-grey in color, blotched with darker olive spots.  When the birds first hatch, they are capable of making short movements within the first day of being out of the egg (Steadman, David W.).  The hatchlings separate shortly after hatching and to try to protect themselves from predators.  The male is often seen standing in front of the nest to protect it and it’s young.  Both the males and the females feed their young by regurgitating insects.  The young are usually able to take flight after 20-21 days (Johnson).

In conclusion, the Antillean nighthawk may not be unique in appearance, but it stands out because of the unique vocalization it makes.  It’s beautiful dark colors would be a wonderful thing to see.  It would also be interesting to compare the three species, Antillean, Common, and Lesser nighthawks to witness the similarities and differences between them.


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Wikimedia. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 27 Aug 2010 20 28 April 2012

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  1. Nighthawk on a branch.
  2. Nighthawks in a rocky field.

earbirding. earbirding, Web. 20 Sept 2015<>

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  1. Flying nighthawk