Out My Backdoor: Whip-poor-wills More Often Heard Than Seen



By Terry W. Johnson

Each spring I anxiously look for a number of milestones. For me, each highlights a happening that makes spring such a special time of the year. My list includes spotting and listening to the first flock of greater sandhill cranes winging their way toward their breeding grounds far to the north; redbud trees bursting into pink clouds of delicate flowers; and, the arrival of the first hummingbird.

While these and a host of other events are important to me, none is more special than hearing that first call of the whip-poor-will. This year, that occurred well before the rays of the rising sun began dissolving the darkness of night on March 28.

Ever since I was a boy, I have been fascinated with this true will-o'-the wisp. Back then, I thought I was one of the few folks who were enamored with the bird. However, as I became older and wiser, I learned that humankind has long been intrigued by a bird that is far more often heard than seen. I am certain that our interest even began long before Aristotle popularized the myth that under the cloak of darkness members of the nightjar family (which includes the whip-poor-will) would suck milk from goats. This myth was so widespread that, to this day, nightjars are often referred to as goatsuckers.

Down through the generations a number of famous authors and poets such as Henry David Thoreau, Washington Irving, James Thurber, Stephen Vincent Benet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Robert Frost and William Faulkner have written about this mysterious bird. Even the legendary country singer and songwriter Hank Williams wrote about the whip-poor-will.  Everyone that loves country music is familiar with Hank Williams' famous lyrics, "Hear the lonesome whip-poor-will. He sounds too blue to fly. The midnight train whining low. I'm so lonesome I could cry."

Not to argue with Hank Williams, but I have always considered the whip-poor-will's call to be uplifting. Perhaps I am in the minority. Who knows? One thing I do know is that according to American folklore, if you hear a whip-poor-will singing near your home, it is a sign of an impending death. Others believed it was an omen that bad luck would befall you in the near future.

Remarkably, as late as the 19th century, many Americans attributed the call of whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will to the nighthawk.

Now we know the male whip-poor-will calls to advertise the boundaries of his breeding territory and to attract a mate. This pronouncement is most often heard shortly after sunset and just before dawn. However, my wife and I have also heard the birds call in the dead of night.

Whip-poor-wills are known for the incessant calling. While, for some unknown reason, whip-poor-wills will call for only a few minutes, more often than not they will call and call without any letup. Often they will repeat the name 400 or more times before going silent. However, one observer reported a whip-poor-will calling 1,088 times before calling it quits.

During the brief time they are with us, whip-poor-wills are most often found in deciduous and mixed forests features little undergrowth. They have also been found in pine and pine-oaks woodlands. Another key component to the whip-poor-will's habitat is the proximity to open fields.

Whip-poor-wills do not build a nest. Typically, females will lay their two-egg clutches directly on dead leaves; however, sometimes their eggs are found on bare ground. It has been reported that nests are often on the north side of a nearby herb or bush. Whip-poor-wills will nest up to twice a year.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the whip-poor-will’s nesting behavior is the birds appear to synchronize nesting with the phase of the moon. Studies have shown that the 19–21 day incubation period of whip-poor-wills ends about 10 days before a full moon. If you are wondering why this important to the bird, the answer is actually very simple.

It seems whip-poor-wills begin feeding about a half an hour after the sun sets. They will continue hunting until it becomes next to impossible for them to see. They resume foraging for food some 40 minutes before dawn. When you consider most other birds have the luxury of feeding their young throughout the day, I am sure that whip-poor-wills are often challenged to feed their young during the brief period available to them.

As it turns out, many biologists believe whip-poor-wills greatly extend their time to gather food for their young by actively feeding when the moon is full. This theory has been bolstered by research that suggests the eyes of the whip-poor-will are equipped with a reflective structure that greatly enhances the birds' ability to see the silhouettes of insects by moonlight.

Whip-poor-wills feed on the wing. Moths and beetles are among their favorite prey. However, they also eat fireflies and other flying insects. They catch these large insects in their extremely large mouth. These aerial hunters often hunt patrolling the edges of fields and woodlands.

Sometimes they will hunt from perches, flying up to nab an insect much in the manner of a flycatcher.

It might surprise you that whip-poor-wills will also forage for ants and worms while standing on the ground.

Those of us who live in the northern half of the state are most likely to hear the song of the whip-poor-will. However, the Georgia Breeding Bird survey revealed that the bird nests sporadically below the Fall Line. Although the whip-poor-will appears to have been extending its breeding range southward over the past several decades, experts suggest that most of the whip-poor-wills heard in this portion of the state are either late migrants or nonbreeding males.

Data collected in the annual Breeding Bird Survey has not shown a population trend for the birds in Georgia. Data collected throughout the birds breeding range paints a far different picture. According to these findings, the population of whip-poor-wills plummeted 60 percent between 1970 and 2014.

I, for one, do not want to see us lose the whip-poor-will. Although I measure the time between my seeing one by the year, it remains one of my favorite birds. I am sure this is due, in large part to the fact that as a boy, I often heard the emphatic calling of the whip-poor-while while I was camping out in the backyard or fishing for catfish from a wooden boat anchored in the channel of a slow-moving river not far from my home.

Over the years, my appreciation for the bird has grown, helping me better understand what Henry David Thoreau wrote, "The note of the whip-poor-will borne over the fields is the voice with which the moon and moonlight woo me."

Terry W. Johnson is a former Nongame program manager with the Wildlife Resources Division and executive director of The Environmental Resources Network, or TERN, friends group of the division’s Nongame Conservation Section. (Permission is required to reprint this column.) Learn more about TERN, see previous “Out My Backdoor” columns, read Terry’s Backyard Wildlife Connection blog and check out his latest book, “A Journey of Discovery: Monroe County Outdoors.”