CNHM Director of Education
It is a bird I have never seen, but hear every night right now, just outside the windows of our house. The song goes on for what seems like forever. It is the sound of a whip-poor-whil, singing “whip-poor-will” with an accent on the first and last syllables. A famous naturalist, John Burroughs, once heard a whip-poor-will make 1,088 vocal repetitions before taking a break. Whip-poor-wills belong to a family of birds called nightjars because their loud songs "jar" the night. They are also called goatsuckers because of a superstition that the birds drink milk from farm livestock at night. The name whip-poor-will and that of many other nightjars is a fairly accurate description of what the bird sings.
The whip-poor-will song begins in the spring. During their courtship, the female will land near a calling male, who then will walk towards her with a fancy gait, head bobbing up and down. When he reaches her, he circles as she bobs, while both continue to sing their songs. He will also approach her from the side and touch her bill while she trembles. The nest is built on the ground on leaf litter in areas where there is little or no undercover. The birds time their egg-laying with the moon, synchronizing it so the usual two eggs hatch about ten days before the full moon. This timing allows the adults to forage all night for food with the greatest amount of moonlight. Both parents feed their young regurgitated food. The chicks hop along the ground very quickly after hatching, using their parents camouflage to hide them. If this fails, the young scatter and freeze while the adults distract the invaders. How unfortunate that we rarely get to observe any of these activities!
Hunting is obviously a part of the whip-poor-whil’s nocturnal lifestyle, and while an owl hunts mostly by sound, the whip-poor-will searches for its prey by sight. As a result, they are most active at twilight, dawn, and on brighter moonlit nights. They will catch insects, ranging from mosquitoes to moths, grasshoppers and beetles. In spite of a small bill, they can open their mouths wide when in flight, foraging while wheeling or circling, even hovering for their prey. They will also make short flights out from the ground or branches to catch prey. They use the silhouette of their prey against the night sky. Such creative strategies for hunting!
Legends of whip-poor-whils include a New England story that the bird can sense a soul departing, and can catch it as it flees. An American belief is that the singing of the birds is a death omen. Stephen King and other movie creators have used the song to help create suspense or other moods.
How can a human be lucky enough to spot a whip-poor-will? Their eyeshine reflects red at night, and sometimes they can be seen in a moth-like flight. The birds can sometimes be seen sitting on roads, with small, weak feet and short legs, as they hop about awkwardly. They usually sit lengthwise on their perch instead of other birds who sit across them. Perhaps someday I will be lucky enough to capture a visual moment of a whip-poor-will. Until then, I will enjoy, as do my neighbors, their nightly song.
Nature Watch is brought to you by the Cable Natural History Museum. For 40 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility and new exhibit, On Lake Owen: The Art of Walter Bohl, in Cable at 13470 County Highway M or on the web at www.cablemuseum.org to learn more about exhibits and programs.