Bull-bats, bugeaters, goat-suckers, the Nighthawk is the recipient of an array of unusual nicknames. Its actual name is, as a matter of fact, a bit of a misnomer. Neither a hawk nor a completely nocturnal animal, the Nighthawk is actually a species of Nightjar. Often acknowledged as resembling tiny dragons thanks to their unique shape and cryptic coloration, Nighthawks are insect-eating birds with small feet and large eyes. They are most well-known for their unusually wide mouths which are used to capture insects. With owl-like faces and wide gaping mouths, Nighthawks are both incredibly distinctive and hauntingly beautiful.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the myths and stories connected with Nighthawks, as well as the unique lessons that we can take away from this decidedly bizarre little bird. Whether the sight of Nighthawks in flight sets your heart soaring, whether you feel compelled by the strange details of this bird’s anatomy, or whether you simply enjoy learning about the myths and folktales which humans have built up around these creatures, read on to learn all about Nighthawks!
Nighthawk Symbolism and Meaning
Bat-like in flight, Nighthawks are often difficult to spot. Their feathers give them camouflage and they are most active during the dawn and evening hours when visibility is low. Rather than spotting them by eye, Nighthawks are most often identified by the booming sound that they make. Nighthawks will often careen towards the ground at high speeds and open their wings at the last second in order to stop on a dime. The air rushing across the Nighthawks’ wings results in this massive booming sound. This boom, combined with their crepuscular bat-like flight, is the reason that Nighthawks are sometimes referred to as “bull-bats.” Nighthawks, then, may represent the unexpected. Although this giant booming sound may sound startling, its source is both unexpected and harmless. (1)
One of the other nicknames of the Nighthawk, the “bugeater,” has a much more straightforward source. Nighthawks are often referred to as “bugeaters” thanks to their insectivorous diet. It is due to this nickname that people from Nebraska were historically referred to as “bugeaters.” Nighthawks are associated with the state of Nebraska and occasionally appear as mascots for sports teams and symbols of state pride. This is presumably due to the fact that Nighthawks flying over the plains of Nebraska became an emblem of the state. In fact, Nebraska was once referred to as the “Bugeater State.” (2)
Common Nighthawks are birds who migrate over vast distances. Amongst United States birds, the Nighthawk has one of the longest migration routes around. Thanks to these long distance migrations, Common Nighthawks are often found far outside of their normal ranges. Although they are native to North America, they have been sighted as far afield as Iceland, Greenland, and the British Isles. Because Nighthawks are known to appear far outside of their normal ranges, Nighthawks can be connected with travelers, wandering, and being lost. (3)
Nighthawks use their massive mouths to swoop up the insects that make up their diet. Because of this unusual strategy, Nighthawks may represent the idea of “casting a wide net.” The fascinating and strange anatomy of the Nighthawk reminds us to utilize our strengths to the fullest.
Because Nighthawks are “crepuscular,” meaning that they are most active at dawn and dusk, they may be associated with new beginnings. The Nighthawk is the herald of the day and night. They represent the transitions between different times and spaces.
Nighthawk Native American Symbolism
Nighthawks are sometimes thought of by Native American cultures as ill omens. It is sometimes said that their calls and their booming wing beats may foretell death or misfortune for the person who hears them.
Nighthawks are sometimes connected with Cherokee identity, heritage, and traditional ways of life. A Cherokee leader named Redbird Smith formed a group called the “Keetoowah Nighthawk Society” with the goal of preserving and practicing traditional Cherokee ways of life. Thanks to Redbird Smith and the Keetoowah Nighthawk Society, Nighthawks are often taken as symbols of Native American identity, as well as Cherokee identity in particular.
Nighthawk Christianity Symbolism
Nighthawks do not appear often in Christian symbolism or iconography. They are, however, named amongst the animals which are listed as “abominations” and “unclean and unfit for consumption,” within Leviticus.
“And these are they which ye shall have in abomination among the fowls; they shall not be eaten, they are an abomination: the eagle, and the ossifrage, and the ospray, And the vulture, and the kite after his kind; Every raven after his kind; And the owl, and the night hawk, and the cuckow, and the hawk after his kind”— Leviticus 11:13-16 (4)
Like owls, Nighthawks are probably connected with wilderness and desolation.
“Therefore the wild beasts of the desert with the wild beasts of the islands shall dwell there, and the owls shall dwell therein: and it shall be no more inhabited for ever; neither shall it be dwelt in from generation to generation.”–Jeremiah 50:39 (5)
Nighthawk Celtic Symbolism
Nighthawks do not tend to appear in Celtic myths or folklore. As crepuscular animals, however, they can easily be connected with the Celtic idea of the “Otherworld.” The Celtic Otherworld is a place of liminality. It is the space where supernatural beings live. In between day and night is the dusk. In between the night and day is the dawn. These special liminal spaces are the home of the Nighthawk. So, the Nighthawk may be connected with spirituality, magic, and transitions.
Nighthawk in Dreams
Dreaming of the Nighthawk may be a sign that a transition is approaching in your life. Nighthawks are representatives of the transition between worlds and between chapters. Dreaming of the Nighthawk may represent a change on the horizon. Changes can be extremely scary, but a Nighthawk dream may serve as an encouraging reminder that these periods of transition are nothing to fear. Change doesn’t have to be good or bad. It just is.
Dreaming of a Nighthawk might indicate a hidden or unexpected strength or talent of which you should try to take advantage. A Nighthawk dream might refer to the Nighthawk’s unusual frog-like mouth. When these birds rest with their mouths shut, they seem to have small beaks. But when they open wide, their mouths are the perfect net for corralling insects. A Nighthawk dream may remind you not to underestimate yourself. Something unusual or quirky about you might just be the hidden strength that allows you to shine.
Nighthawk Encounters and Omens
Nighthawks are often difficult to spot. In fact, their camouflage is so complete that they do not use nests for their young. Instead, they “nest” on gravel roofs and other flat areas. Their chicks are so well camouflaged that no nest is necessary. While Nighthawks are hard to see, their nasally calls and booming flight noises are easy enough to identify.
If you’ve been encountering Nighthawks, this may indicate something mysterious or unusual in your life. A Nighthawk encounter can be a useful reminder to look below the surface of your circumstances. The things that you experience may have a cause that you can’t yet see.
Nighthawk in Mythology & Folklore
Nighthawks, Nightjars, and Whippoorwills all appear in myths and folk stories from around the world. Here are a few of these stories.
Native American Mythology:
According to Native American mythology, a Nightjar’s call could spell death for whomever hears it. It is said that the Nightjar’s call is an invitation and the listener must decline it right away. If the Nightjar stops calling, then the listener is likely to die shortly. If the calls continue, then the listener is meant for a long and prosperous life. (6)
Mohegan legend states that Whippoorwills and Nighthawks are actually small magical people who dwell in the woods and make all sorts of mischief. (7)
A Japanese short story dating back to the 1920s features the Nighthawk. In the story of The Nighthawk Star, the Nighthawk is bullied and rejected by the other birds of the world. The hawk, especially, hates the Nighthawk because it has “hawk” inside its name. One day, the hawk threatens the Nighthawk and warns him that if he doesn’t change his name then he will be killed. Sad and desperate, the Nighthawk begs the sun and stars one-by-one to shelter him from the hawk. One-by-one, the sun and stars refuse to shelter him. Ready to give up, the Nighthawk plunges to the earth, but before he hits the ground, he gets a renewed sense of determination. He flies high into the sky until he is beside the star, Cassiopeia. There, the Nighthawk lives on in safety as the Nighthawk Star. (8)
Greek philosophers, such as Aristotle and Pliny the Elder, have written about the Nighthawk family, however according to the ancient Greeks, these birds had an appetite for more than just insects. Greek myth suggests that Nightjars and Nighthawks subsist upon the milk of goats which they steal directly from the goats’ udders. This isn’t true, but it is a fascinating interpretation of the unusual anatomy of this species.
“The Caprimulgi (so called of milking goats) are like the bigger kind of Owsels. They bee night-theeves; for all the day long they see not. Their manner is to come into the sheepeheards coats and goat-pens, and to the goats udders presently they goe, and suck the milke at their teats. And looke what udder is so milked, it giveth no more milke, but misliketh and falleth away afterwards, and the goats become blind withall.”— Pliny the Elder 77 AD (9)
Nighthawk Spirit Animal
If your spirit animal is the Nighthawk then you are likely an unusual individual who enjoys doing things your own way. People with the Nighthawk spirit animal love exploring and satisfying their curiosity. The Nighthawk spirit animal is naturally curious and is often drawn to the things that people forget or ignore.
The Nighthawk spirit animal is introverted, but very creative. People with this spirit animal are great problem-solvers who look for creative new angles to deal with the circumstances that life throws at them.
The Nighthawk spirit animal tends to be very free-thinking and prone to daydreaming. People with this spirit animal may need help staying grounded, but their dreamy natures help them imagine incredible new possibilities.
Nighthawk Totem Animal
If your totem animal is the Nighthawk then you are likely a person with lots of hidden potential. People with the Nighthawk as their totem animal have untold strengths which they may not realize. Often, the Nighthawk totem does not understand the value and potential of its individual quirks.
If your totem animal is the Nighthawk then you should focus on the things that make you unique. Embrace your challenges and dive into your interests. That way you’ll discover the depths of your potential.
Nighthawk Power Animal
If the Nighthawk is your power animal then you may invoke this animal to ease you through life’s transitions. The Nighthawk is a bird which is unafraid of transition and embraces the parts of life which others hesitate to explore.
The Nighthawk power animal can be a fantastic source of guidance during periods of change and transition.
Nighthawk Tattoo Meaning
A Nighthawk tattoo may be a reminder of the beauty and magic that exists in unusual or unique things. Nighthawk tattoos may represent transitions, hidden strengths, or potential.
A Nighthawk tattoo may also represent bad luck or misfortune.
Nighthawks are decidedly bizarre. Owl-like faces, frog-like mouths, tiny feet, and strange booming sounds accompany this creature as it whizzes and bobs through the evening sky. Strange, but beautiful, the Nighthawk is a perfect symbol for the amazing things which come to life during the dawn and dusk hours. There is a whole world of beautiful and exquisite creatures which live right at the edges of our perception.