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A chapter from the electronic book:  Life Histories of Familiar North American Birds

Whip-poor-will
Caprimulgus vociferus [Eastern Whippoorwill]  

Contributed by Winsor Marrett Tyler
[Published in 1940: Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 176: 163-183]

Almost every man, woman, and child living in the wide breeding range of the whippoorwill knows the bird by name. Those who once hear it singing, reiterating its name perhaps a hundred times or more without a pause, cannot fail to realize that they are listening to a whippoorwill, but how many of this multitude who know the whippoorwill's name ever saw the bird, or would recognize it if they did see it? Not, it may be presumed, one-tenth of 1 percent.

Yet, the whippoorwill lived many long years in denser obscurity still, for, playing a part behind the scenes, so to speak, its lines were ascribed to another actor in the play; it was not recognized as a bird at all until the early part of the last century. Prior to this time the whippoorwill was supposed to be nothing more than the voice of the nighthawk, and even now in many rural districts the two birds are not clearly distinguished from each other. William Brewster (1895) says: "They are still very generally regarded by country people throughout New England as one and the same bird."

Spring.--The whippoorwill starts northward from central Florida in the latter part of March. This northerly movement evidently represents a general migration from the southern and eastern Gulf States, and through them from points farther south. The bird arrives in the latitude of Boston, Mass., late in April or early in May, thus flying a distance of a thousand miles or more in 35 or 40 days--a migration that corresponds closely, both in time of year and in speed of travel, with that of the chimney swift. Of this journey Wilson (1831) says:

In their migrations north, and on their return, they probably stop a day or two at some of their former stages, and do not advance in one continued flight. The whip-poor-will was first heard this season [1811] on the 2nd day of May, in a corner of Mr. Bartram's woods, not far from the house, and for two or three mornings after in the same place, where I also saw it. From this time until the beginning of September, there were none of these birds to be found within at least one mile of the place; though I frequently made search for them. On the 4th of September the whip-poor-will was again heard for two evenings successively in the same part of the woods. I also heard several of them passing, within the same week, between dusk and nine o'clock at night, it being then clear moonlight. These repeated their notes three or four times, and were heard no more. It is highly probable that they migrate during the evening and night.

F. Seymour Hersey (1923) tells of a striking instance of nocturnal migration when a multitude of whippoorwills arrived suddenly at Lakeville, Mass., in the middle of the night.

In 1901 [he says], on the evening of May 4, about eight o'clock, a single bird was heard singing. This was the first arrival noted and no others were heard that evening. At two o'clock the following morning, six hours later, I was awakened by birds singing loudly everywhere. I dressed and went out and for more than an hour the chorus continued. There were numbers of birds about the house, on the door-step and ridge-pole, others singing in the road or from the stone walls along the road side, while still others could be heard down in the pastures--often eight or ten were singing at the same instant. I walked down the road for half a mile and the birds seemed equally as abundant on neighbors' farms. It seems probable that the migration takes place at night as these birds had just arrived.

Courtship.--Few observers have had the good fortune to watch the sexual activities of the whippoorwill. One must be very near the birds to see, in the semi darkness, the courtship in detail, and even should we catch sight of a courting pair--a rare happening--we may get but a glimpse of their actions, because, if they flit only a little way back into the gloom, they are lost to view, fading into the shadows.

Frank Bolles (1912) tells of the following experience. He was hidden under a "narrow fringe of spirea bushes, 2 1/2 ft. high only 3 ft. from the stone"--a stone on which a whippoorwill sang every evening. He says:

It uttered its note about twenty or thirty times when to my astonishment another whip, alighted near it, on the left (W.) end of the boulder. One or two sounds like the soft popping of corn came from the new arrival, and the first bird, which had ceased its call, faced west and began a strange, slow dance, advancing a step at a time towards its mate, raising its body to the full length of its legs at each step, thus making a sort of undulating approach. The other bird remained where it alit, but seemed to be moving its body up and down or else slowly pulsating its wings. The first bird, which I think was the male, seemed to continue its dance entirely around the female. As he passed her, indescribable purring and popping sounds were made and one of the birds flew lightly away--the female I think. The male resumed his first position and remained silent. Then he rose and circled in the air, catching an insect I thought, for he came back at once to the spot on the rock which he always covers. A moment later his mate seemed to call from below the house, near the lake, and he flew, his white feathers flashing as he spread his tail, and the strokes of his wings making a distinct and quite loud sound as he passed close above my head.

Henry K. Coale (1920) reporting the observation of his neighbor, Moritz Boehm, says:

On different occasions, while the male was calling, he saw the female going through some peculiar antics, but in the dusk could not make out just what she was doing. One evening, when he was sitting on the lower step, the birds came up and performed within ten feet of him. He kept perfectly quiet. The male called from a low branch overhead, while the female strutted on the gravel path below, with wings and tail outspread and head lowered, and side-stepped back and forth, half way around to the right, then to the left, all the time uttering a curious guttural chuckle. This performance was kept up for ten or fifteen minutes.

Bendire's (1895) account of the whippoorwill's courtship is the best in the literature; it has become almost a classic, and ornithologists still deplore the regrettable incident that interrupted the observation.

While on a collecting trip in Herkimer County, New York, with Dr. William L. Ralph, in June, 1893, I witnessed a most amusing performance, which one may see perhaps once in a lifetime. I happened to be in a little outbuilding, some 20 feet in the rear of the house at which we were stopping, early on the evening of the 24th, about half an hour after sundown, when I heard a peculiar, low, clucking noise outside, which was directly followed by the familiar call of the "whip-poor-will." . . . Directly alongside of the small outbuilding previously referred to, a barrel of sand and lime had been spilled, and from the numerous tracks of these birds, made by them nightly afterwards, it was evident that this spot was visited regularly, and was the trysting place of at least one pair. Looking through a small aperture, I saw one of the birds waddling about in a very excited manner over the sand-covered space, which was perhaps 2 by 3 feet square, and it was so much interested in its own performance that it did not notice me, although I made some noise trying to fight off a swarm of mosquitoes which assailed me from all sides. Its head appeared to be all mouth, and its notes were uttered so rapidly that, close as I was to the bird, they sounded like one long, continuous roll.

A few seconds after his first effort (it was the male) he was joined by his mate, and she at once commenced to respond with a peculiar, low, buzzing or grunting note, like "gaw-gaw-gaw," undoubtedly a note of approval or endearment. This evidently cost her considerable effort; her head almost touched the ground while uttering it, her plumage was relaxed, and her whole body seemed to be in a violent tremble. The male in the meantime had sidled up to her and touched her bill with his, which made her move slightly to one side, but so slowly that he easily kept close alongside her. These sidling movements were kept up for a minute or more each time; first one would move away, followed by the other, and then it was reversed; both were about equally bold and coy at the same time. Their entire love making looked exceedingly human, and the female acted as timid and bashful as many young maidens would when receiving the first declarations of their would-be lovers, while the lowering of her head might easily be interpreted as being done to hide her blushes. Just about the time I thought this courtship would reach its climax, a dog ran out of the house and caused both to take flight.

Nesting.--The whippoorwill lays its two eggs on dry, well-drained ground, generally near the edge of a wood of small mixed growth--oak, beech, pine--where the floor of the wood is clear of dense underbrush and where the trees are not crowded together, but spaced far enough apart to cast an uneven shadow. The eggs may lie on the open floor or under a small bush--not tucked away near the stems, but out in the shadow of its branches. The bird builds no nest, although a slight depression about the eggs may result from the presence of the parent there during incubation; for concealment it relies solely on the soft color of the fallen leaves and the flickering light of the woodland.

It is rare to find the eggs laid in a more open situation.

Lewis McI. Terrill, in a letter to Mr. Bent, gives in detail the results of remarkably close observations of the home life of a pair of whippoorwills and their brood. His observations were made near St. Lambert, Quebec, in 1933.

On May 14 Mr. Terrill came upon a pair of whippoorwills in a patch of deciduous trees, mainly young maple and birch. A week later he flushed the female "from a single egg lying on a bed of old leaves in a small glade" near the spot where he first saw the birds. "There was no depression whatever, and the egg appeared as if it had been casually dropped there." The second egg was not laid until the 23d, indicating "that egg deposition takes place on alternate days."

Invariably at his subsequent visits Mr. Terrill found the female incubating or brooding, but while the young birds remained in the vicinity of the nest he saw the male near it only once (June 20).

He says: "The male spent the day in a thicket over 400 yards away. I usually heard him singing from this direction in the early part of the evening; later he sang from a point nearer the nest; and finally from its immediate vicinity. I gather from this that he visited his family regularly at night.

"On May 27 the eggs were resting in a noticeable depression made by the pressure of the bird's body. One might almost call it a nest although no extraneous nesting material whatever had been added. The female was very consistent in her behavior, usually leaving the eggs when I was 10-15 feet away and flying to a dead branch 2 feet from the ground where she uttered a few protesting chucks, which resembled a call of the catbird and to a lesser extent the chuck of the hermit thrush.

"On the occasion of the male's visit (June 20) both birds were very worried, and their calls, especially that of the male resembled the whip note of his song, although much subdued. He sometimes called whip-will when excited by the distress calls of the young.

"When returning to the nest the female frequently hovered before alighting, often dropping to the ground a few feet from the nest. Even at that short distance she would not attempt to walk onto the eggs, but would fly up again, hover, and then alight directly on the nest.

"The nighthawk, we may note, progresses differently. To be sure, it occasionally flies short distances when approaching the nest, but the final approach is by walking, or perhaps I should say creeping in a Charlie Chaplin-like shuffle. The different methods of approach to the nest are, I think, indicative of the different habitats of two very similar birds. The woodland whippoorwill hops or flies to avoid obstructions, whereas the nighthawk can gain its objective without leaving the ground.

"The female whippoorwill was still incubating on June 10, but on the 11th there were two young in the nest. The incubation period for the last egg laid was, therefore, at least 19 days, and possibly nearer 20.

"The first definite movement away from the nest was noted on June 18, when the female was brooding the young 50 feet away. On the 19th and 20th she was respectively 70 and 85 feet from the nest. The female often alighted crosswise on a limb when excited, or for the purpose of facing me, but quickly assumed the lengthwise position.

"June 21-22--Female brooding young 100 feet from nest.

"June 25--One young bird flew 15 feet.

"June 26--Older chick flew 25 feet when female was flushed. Younger bird still jumped, then squatted, but when I placed it on a branch, it flew 15 feet. Both young always alighted on the ground, but perched readily. This was the last I saw of the family."

Mr. Terrill's report of this family of whippoorwills makes it clear that the male parent rarely came near the nest at the times he was watching it. For example, H. E. Tuttle (1911) says: "The male Whip-poor-will I saw only once, and that was after the young were fully grown. He was very conspicuous in the dusk as he sat on a log, uttering rasping sounds in his throat and opening and shutting his tail, brilliantly marked with white at the edges. It was only a day or so after seeing the male bird that I lost sight of the young birds altogether."

But why should we expect the male whippoorwill to come to the nest in the middle of the night--the whippoorwill's day? There is nothing to do there at night except to keep the eggs warm, or, after they hatch, to brood the young, and his mate can do that while she sleeps on the nest. So he sleeps a little way off. But when the dark comes--when his morning breaks--when the night insects begin to fly, and food abounds, and his hungry children cry, where is the male parent then? We do not know, but we may assume, as Mr. Terrill suggests, that he joins his family and aids in feeding the young.

When a female bird is approached while she is incubating (Bendire says: "I believe the female attends to this duty almost exclusively") the behavior varies a good deal in different individuals. In many accounts of her actions, she is reported to flop about on the ground, seemingly trying to lead the intruder away. Wilson (1831) reports that "in traversing the woods one day in the early part of June, along the brow of a rocky declivity, a whippoorwill rose from my feet, and fluttered along, sometimes prostrating herself, and beating the ground with her wings, as if just expiring." On the other hand, H. E. Tuttle (1911) speaks of a bird, brooding young, which was "very fearless, allowing me to touch her back and making it necessary for me to shove her gently off the young when I wanted a glimpse of them."

Arthur C. Bent, in his notes, says that late in May he "flushed a whippoorwill from near a woodland path, where it apparently had been roosting regularly as evidenced by its droppings." A few days later, not 25 yards from the path, he "flushed the whippoorwill from the ground and saw its single egg lying on the flat, bare oak leaves."

C. H. D. Clarke, writing to Mr. Bent from Ontario, Canada, points out how changes in the topography of a region may affect the local whippoorwills. He says: "The common denominator explaining the local distribution of this species is, I believe, to be found in its feeding and egg-laying habits. The whippoorwill feeds in the open, like the nighthawk, but unlike it, fairly near the ground. Although both birds lay their eggs on the ground, the nighthawk nests in the open, whereas the whippoorwill always nests among trees. Hence, as a breeding bird, it is found in glades and around the edges of woodlots. Many of the woodlots, however, in this vicinity are closely grazed by cattle at the present time, a condition that prevailed less commonly in the semi pioneering stage of our county. The whippoorwill does not tolerate this change; it will not breed in the grazed woodlots, and, as a consequence, has been reduced in numbers here. It also seems to avoid extensive areas of conifers, possibly because of the absence of hardwood litter on which to lay its eggs. The area at Frank's Bay, in which the bird breeds very commonly, is a sand plain that was burned over about 25 years ago and has since grown up in many places to dense stands of poplar from 15 to 20 feet high. Here the whippoorwill has plenty of shelter in the dense poplar woods, an abundance of hardwood litter, and may cruise about over the treetops not far above ground."

Eggs.--[AUTHOR'S NOTE: The two eggs of the whippoorwill are between oval and elliptical-oval in shape and become somewhat glossy when incubated. The ground color is usually pure white, but occasionally a faint creamy tint is perceptible. The markings consist of spots or small blotches of "pale Quaker drab" or "pallid Quaker drab," scattered over the eggs more or less irregularly; an occasional egg has large, irregular blotches of this color. Overlying these pale gray markings, or scattered among them, are often many small spots or fine dots of various browns, such as "cinnamon-brown," "tawny," or "tawny-olive." An occasional egg is almost immaculate.

The measurements of 50 eggs average 29.0 by 21.3 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 31.5 by 21.0, 30.48 by 22.86, 20.48 by 21.34, and 28.45 by 20.07 millimeters.]

Young.--The little whippoorwill chick, hatching out from an invisible egg, finds itself lying on the ground, with dead leaves all about. The dead leaves look like the chick, and the chick looks like the dead leaves; no one can tell them apart; practically the chick is a dead leaf, and, although hatched, it is still invisible, just as it was when hidden in the egg.

Some birds depend on speed for safety, or on agility or strength, but the whippoorwill relies chiefly on not being seen. Safety comes to the whippoorwill in dim light, half shadows, and the faint, confusing obscurity of dusk, and among these, on the borderland of invisibility, the whippoorwill lives all its days.

Nests of the whippoorwill are found almost always by accident. The old bird starts up from near the observer's feet, a search--sometimes a long one--reveals the eggs or the young birds. For example, A. Dawes DuBois (1911) says:

The first nest was found on May 16, 1908, in a strip of woods of medium size trees, thickly undergrown, on a high bank of the Sangamon River [Illinois]. The ground was well carpeted with dried oak leaves. Our first intimation of Whippoorwills in this place was the sudden appearance of an adult bird fluttering along the ground in front of us, apparently with a broken wing. We stopped at once and while my companion stood to mark the place, I followed the bird a short distance. She fluttered along noiselessly, feigning serious injury and leading me away from the nest as rapidly as I could be induced to follow.

A search revealed the nest within a pace of the spot we had marked. It contained one egg and the broken shell of another which gave evidence of having hatched. Although I stooped to examine the broken shell I did not see the bird that had hatched from it until my companion called my attention to it. The little fellow was crouched, motionless, upon the brown leaves not six inches from the broken egg-shell.

H. E. Tuttle (1911) speaks thus of the young birds: "The newly hatched birds were very attractive-looking little chicks so long as they kept their mouths shut. They were a uniform buff color, which matched well with the leaves, and the instant their mother left them they ran in opposite directions and squatted. In this maneuver the old bird seemed to aid them materially by the vigorous flip which she gave them as she rose, often tumbling them over on their backs."

J. G. Suthard writes to Mr. Bent from Musekgon, Mich., as follows: "On June 14, 1936, I flushed a whippoorwill from an oak-leafed spot on a steep hillside overlooking a large timbered swamp. I shortly discovered two downy young with their eyes only partly opened. They made no effort to escape and were silent when handled. The parent flew around several times, uttering a whup-whup-whur note, and then perched on a dead limb of a nearby tree. One of the eggshells was about 6 feet below the nest on the hillside, and the feces of the young had not been moved by the parents. As this nest was only about 30 yards from the main highway, I returned several times between this date and June 24 to see if, owing to my disturbance of the young, the parents would move them. Each time I visited the nest the parent was brooding the young in practically the same spot."

Lewis McI. Terrill, in his study of nest life, quoted under "Nesting," says that on June 12, before the young birds were two days old, "whenever the female was flushed, the nestlings hopped or jumped several inches with the suddenness and unexpected agility of 'jumping beans,' then squatted in hiding posture in the manner of woodcock chicks. The entire movement was so rapid that it almost escaped notice." He continues:

"From the 13th to the 16th the female was brooding the young either on the nest or in the shade 2 or 3 feet away. On the latter date I heard one of the nestlings give a weak, complaining whip, which was answered by the mother 20 feet away. It attempted to follow her, progressing by little hops, but was in difficulty when it encountered heavy undergrowth where it was unable to hop. The smaller of the nestlings remained in the nest.

"June 26--The older bird when placed lengthwise on a limb quickly turned about and perched crosswise, demonstrating youth's objection to slavish custom! The older bird now frequently used the whip note, which appears to be the chief motif in the whippoorwill vocabulary. The younger bird still called in wheezy tones that I readily imitated by sucking my finger--so well that the mother bird frequently responded by flying to me and fluttering at my feet. The young at this date, nearly 16 days old, closely resembled their parents."

Terrill definitely established the incubation period of one of the eggs in the nest he observed as not less than 19 days, "and possibly nearer 20." Burns (1915) gives the incubation period as 17 days, and Audubon (1840) gives it as 14 days.

Plumages.--[AUTHOR'S NOTE: The downy young whippoorwill is thickly covered with long, soft, silky down, shading in color from "cinnamon" on the back to "pinkish cinnamon" on the chest, and to "light pinkish cinnamon" on the crown and abdomen; it matches the dead leaves on which it is hatched.

The juvenal plumage begins to grow at an early age. Ridgway (1914) says that the young male is "similar to the adult male in 'pattern' and coloration of lateral rectrices, as well as of primaries and primary coverts, but rest of plumage quite different, the wing-coverts and scapulars deep brownish buff or clay color, the former with coarse and irregular small spots of black, the latter with very large irregular spots of black, and under parts barred with dusky on a brownish buffy ground and, like most of the upper parts, without fine vermiculations, the pilieum spotted instead of streaked with black, and the band across lower throat indistinct, more or less broken by dusky barring, and buffy instead of white." The young female, he says, is "similar to the young male, but three lateral rectrices broadly tipped with ochraceous-buffy instead of having a large white distal area."

A young bird in juvenal plumage, nearly grown, collected in Massachusetts in July, is like the young male described above, except that the feathers of the interscapular region and the median wing coverts are from "ochraceous-buff" to "light ochraceous-buff," with a narrow shaft streak and a conspicuous subterminal small spot of black.

During July and August the juvenal contour plumage is shed, the juvenal wings and tail being retained, and a first winter plumage is acquired, in which the contour plumage closely resembles that of the adult. This is worn until the following summer, when a complete molt produces the fully adult plumage. Both young and old birds have a complete annual molt between July and September.]

Food.--The earliest report on the food of the whippoorwill is that of Wilson (1831), who was the first writer to show that the whippoorwill  and the nighthawk are different birds. He says: "Their food appears to be large moths, grasshoppers, pismires, and such insects as frequent the bark of old rotten and decaying timber. They are also expert in darting after winged insects."

Knight (1908) puts the following items on the whippoorwill's bill of fare: "Their diet," he says, "would seem to be entirely insectivorous moths of various species, Actias luna, Samia cecropia, Samia columbia, Telea polyphemus, and a great variety of species of Noctuidae, also grasshoppers, crickets, mosquitoes, caddis flies, and in fact almost any sort of insect available."

Bendire (1895) reports that "in the Western States, which are sometimes overrun by swarms of Rocky Mountain Locusts, it also feeds largely on these when abundant."

Forbush (1927) tells of the whippoorwill the following story which will endear the bird to all mosquito haters. He says: "While I slept unsheltered nightly for a week in the Concord woods, rolled in my blanket, with only a head-net hung to a branch overhead to protect me from mosquitoes, I noticed each morning upon awaking just before daylight that something fluttered softly about my head. The sound was like that produced by a large night-moth, but soon I heard something strike the ground a few feet away, and then a well-known cluck convinced me that my visitor was a Whip-poor-will. The bird came nightly while I remained in the woods, and each morning before daylight it flew around my head-net until it had caught all the mosquitoes there."

Eaton (1914) says: "I have taken 36 full-grown moths from the stomach of a single Whippoorwill which was killed early in the evening, indicating that within an hour and a half he had killed and devoured these full-grown moths, each one of which contained hundreds of eggs."

Whippoorwills secure a large part of their food by capturing night-flying insects on the wing, but Ernest Ingersoll (1920) states that they also "have a way of balancing themselves near a tree-trunk or barn-wall, picking ants and other small provender off the bark; and even hunt for worms and beetles on the ground, turning over the leaves to root them out."

Francis H. Allen says: "One evening I saw one take off from the branch of an oak for what was probably its first feeding flight of the night. It opened its mouth wide before launching into the air."

Behavior.--In order to study the whippoorwill at short range it is well to visit its haunts for a few evenings and learn how the bird we are to watch behaves when it wakes from its day's sleep. Whippoorwills move about over a considerable territory when they come into the open for their daily session of singing and feeding, they follow a route, evening after evening, that varies little, and on the circuit are stations--a stone wall, a low branch, or a certain spot on the ground--where they are almost sure to stop and sing for a while.

If we seat ourselves near one of these stations where the light, which will be almost gone when the bird arrives, will favor our view, and where a dark background will obscure us from the bird, we shall be able to see the whippoorwill at short range, for if we sit motionless (no easy task, for mosquitoes will torture us) the bird will pay little attention to us. We must sit quiet and wait, following the song as it swings around the circuit, and we must watch the spot where the bird is about to alight, for, although in flight it looms big even in the dusk, when it comes to rest, with a flip of wings it becomes a bit of dead wood, a clod of earth, or vanishes altogether.

On several evenings late in May 1914, at Wilton, N.H., I visited what appeared to be the whippoorwill headquarters--a dry wood of small deciduous growth bordering a sloping field, on one of which was a moist alder run that ran down to the edge of the wood. When I arrived, between sunset and dark, wood thrushes and veeries were singing, but before they quieted down for the night, the whippoorwills (from one bird to two or three) began to sing, always from the dry wood. They sang intermittently, and generally after each series of whip-poor-wills their voices came from a different part of the wood. By the time the light was becoming uncertain (when one would have difficulty reading print) one bird, leaving the wood, worked up the slope, passing the field either by way of the alder run or by a wood of larger growth and an apple orchard that bordered the higher sides of the field.

On each of the first evenings when I visited the ground, one bird paused in the corner of the field where it joined the alder run, and sang a few times, and on two of these evenings I was able to approach the bird but not near enough to see it. The next evening, therefore, as soon as the bird that was singing in the wood began to change his position, I retired to this corner of the field to await him and sat down on a bank where my figure would not show against the sky. That evening was unusually dark and cloudy. The bird left the wood by the lower side, and at 7:50 I heard the song coming nearer and nearer through the alders behind me. Then, two minutes later, it came with startling suddenness from almost at my side. The bird sat on the bare ground at the foot of the bank not 6 yards from where I sat. In bringing my glass to bear upon him, I disturbed him, I think, for he flew silently away. He alighted, however, on a rock and began to sing. He was now 12 yards from me and on a level with my eyes. His side was toward me, and he faced nearly in the direction from which he had just flown. He sat flat on the stone with his head thrown slightly backward and upward and, on alighting, immediately began to sing.

The song at close range sounded like cuck-rhip-oor-ree, the final note accented and held longer than the other three, although the rhip was louder and longer than the oor. The song was remarkably regular; twice, however, the bird increased the tempo, and once he doubled one note--either the rhip or the oor. After a pause the cuck was invariably the first note given when he continued his song.

Even in the dim light the band of white across the throat was clearly visible, and twice during each repetition of the cuck-rhip-oor-ree this band was drawn backward--slightly at the cuck, markedly during the final ree, when, I think, the beak was open wide. Later, when the bird more nearly faced me, these movements of the white band were less noticeable. The bird sat on the rock for three or four minutes, singing almost continuously. He sat absolutely still for the most part, but twice he moved backward about an inch, as if each time he took a single backward step. His departure, with no apparent cause, was noiseless and abrupt, breaking the song at oor.

F. Seymour Hersey (1923), who watched with great care the whippoorwill making its nightly round, says: "The time taken to make this circuit varied from 25 to 30 minutes. I watched this bird from several places of concealment and ascertained to my satisfaction that it was the same individual that visited each of these places and that the order given above was not varied. The spot from which he sang was, in all cases, nearly the same, i.e., within a very few feet of the place where he was seen on a previous evening."

Frank Bolles (1912) gives a remarkable picture, seen from almost within arm's reach, of a singing whippoorwill. Mr. Bolles, who was hidden near a stone to which the whippoorwill came nightly, says:

Suddenly I hear a rather feeble whip, 12 times S. of me, then silence and then a bird flies to the stone in front of my face, coming low over the bushes and alighting with its tail towards me. It squeaks or clicks three times, and I fear it suspects me and is giving a slight alarm note, but the next moment it begins the piercing 'quip o'rip' slightly raising its head and dipping its tail each time it makes the sound. The head rises on the 'quip' and falls on the 'rip.' The wings do not move, nor the body save by a slight tipping. I could see the bird's outline perfectly against the white background of the shingled barn on which the moonlight fell fully.

When the whippoorwill comes out in the dusk for its evening round, alighting on a stone wall, on the ground, or on a big horizontal branch high in a tall tree, we may sometimes catch sight of it against the sky, as it flies from one station to another. In the air the whippoorwill does not resemble the nighthawk at all. Its wings are broad and, compared to those of the nighthawk, short, and it moves them with an easy sweep, with none of the nighthawk's jerkiness. When we see it flying steadily across an open field, it suggests an owl moving through the gloom on its broad, silent wings.

Taverner and Swales (1907) give a remarkable description of the flight of a whippoorwill seen under such circumstances at Point Pelee, Ontario. They say:

One evening, just as the dusk was darkening into night, a Whip-poor-will was heard near the camp. We stole out, and the bird was located on a large bare walnut tree in the open bush where, looking up against the still faintly illuminated sky, it could be plainly made out, sitting lengthwise, as is their fashion, on a rather large and almost horizontal branch. It remained perfectly motionless except for an occasional jerk of its white blotched tail, when it gave vent intermittently to a guttural "gluck." These notes were repeated at irregular intervals of perhaps half a minute, several times and then, without start or warning, it launched away into the air, starting off immediately at full speed, with a drop that carried it in a large, even circle half way to the ground, and then up on the same curve, to vanish in the gloom of the trees. Then it appeared on the other side, swinging down on fixed wings in great elliptical curves as though whirled from the end of a cord, perfectly silent in flight and threading the dusky mazes of the tree tops with the utmost confidence and precision. Here and there it rapidly wheeled, without an apparent stroke of the wing, now coming into view in the lower arc of its great circling, and then vanishing silently again on the upward sweep on the other side. As suddenly as it started, it ceased in the middle of a swing and, while the eyes vainly searched for the dark object along the continuation of its course, it was seated again on the branch from which it first sprang, silent and still. This was repeated several times, and then it was joined by another, and the two circled about like great soft, gliding bats until the sky above grew so dark that their movements could no longer be watched.

Several writers mention the fearlessness of the whippoorwill, or perhaps its failure to recognize man as a danger. For example, Bendire (1895) quotes E. A. McIlhenny, who says: "These birds are very tame, for on two occasions, while sitting still in the twilight to observe the movements of some Owls, I have had them come so close that I could have caught them. On one occasion one lit on my knee, and another on my foot as it was extended before me." And H. E. Tuttle (1911) says: "Once I watched two males fighting and singing at intervals on a fallen birch sapling. I was quite close to them--within a yard--but they did not seem to regard me as dangerous, and when I tired to imitate the guttural noises they were making, they circled round my head so closely that one touched me with his wings. In the darkness I was probably no more than a charred stump."

C. W. G. Eifrig (1919) mentions "a unique experience" with a whippoorwill, which, displaying unexpected aggressiveness, darted repeatedly at his head.

It has been surmised that the whippoorwill uses its capacious mouth to carry its eggs, and even its young, out of danger when its nest has been discovered. There is no satisfactory evidence that the bird employs its mouth in this way, but it has been seen, on two occasions at least, carrying a young bird through the air held between its legs. J. H. Bowles (1895) says: "I flushed a whippoorwill that rose with a baby bird clutched between her thighs," and Bendire (1895) quotes H. W. Flint as follows: "I once, and only once, saw a female (the male is never present at the nest) carry a young bird about a rod, but cannot say she used her bill, and don't think she did, but I am almost sure the claws and legs only were used, as the young was hugged close to the body."

The whippoorwill is fond of taking dust baths. When driving after dark we sometimes catch sight of one as it starts up from its bath on a country road, and, as it flies off and our headlights pick it up, the white tail feathers, if the bird is a male, shine out for an instant. Forbush (1927) says: "Mr. Stanley H. Bromley of Southbridge, Massachusetts, tells me that a farmer there placed a large tray of dry wood ashes on the ground, and whippoorwills came there at night to dust in it."

Wilson (1831) states: "The inner edge of the middle claw is pectinated, and, from the circumstances of its being frequently found with small portions of down adhering to the teeth, is probably employed as a comb to rid the plumage of its head of vermin."

Voice.--If the whippoorwill "should sing by day, when every goose is cackling," the song might lose some of its witchery; we do not know; the bird sings in the dark, or when darkness is coming on fast, and the singer is invisible or almost invisible among the shadows. The song at a little distance comes to the ear as a penetrating whisper of the bird's name, repeated perfectly regularly, time after time with scarcely a pause between, at a rather rapid rate--about once a second. The fourth note, a cluck before the whip-poor-will, is heard usually only when the bird is fairly near us, although we may hear it at a distance of 200 yards under favorable circumstances. The syllable will carries farthest of all the syllables.

It is rare to hear any material variation in the song, but there are individual birds that regularly sing an unusual form, and sometimes a bird will introduce occasionally one abnormal phrase into his singing.

Simeon Pease Cheney (1891), speaking from the point of view of music, says: "In the courageous repetition of his name he accents the first and last syllables, the last most; always measuring his song with the same rhythm, while very considerably varying the melody--which latter fact is discovered only by most careful attention. Plain, simple, and stereotyped as his song appears, marked variations are introduced in the course of it. The whippoorwill uses nearly all the intervals in the natural scale, even the octave. I have never detected a chromatic tone." Describing altercations between two or more birds, he says:

These altercations are sometimes very amusing. Three whippoorwills, two males and a female, indulged in them for several evenings one season, in my garden. They came just at dark, and very soon a spirited contest began. Frequently they flew directly upward, one at a time. Occasionally one flew down into the patch near me, put out his wings, opened his big mouth, and hissed like a goose disturbed in the dark. But, the most peculiar, the astonishing feature of the contention was the finale. Toward the close of the trial of speed and power, the unwieldy name was dropped, and they rattled on freely with the same rhythm that the name would have required, alternating in their rushing triplets, going faster and faster, louder and louder, to the end.

The bird is remarkable on account of the regularity of its song and the great number of times it repeats the whip-poor-will without a pause. From 50 to 100 repetitions are not uncommon. Forbush (1927) says: "John Burroughs, however, made a count which so far as I know exceeds all others. He records that he heard a bird 'lay upon the back of poor will' 1088 blows with only a rarely perceptible pause here and there, as if to take breath."

F. Seymour Hersey (1923) writes: "The Whip-poor-will sings most continuously from dusk till about 9:30 p.m. and from 2:00 a.m. till dawn. During the intervening hours only an occasional song is heard. The song season lasts from their arrival in spring until late July or early August. Then there is a marked falling off in the number of singing birds heard until toward the end of August or early in September an increase in the number of singers is again noted. The songs of these late birds often lack the energy that characterizes the spring performance but a good many continue to sing until they leave for the south. My latest singing bird was noted September 24, 1901." These dates refer to eastern Massachusetts.

Of the possibility of the female singing, he says "June 15 a Whip-poor-will alighted on the fence and uttered its 'chuck' note, which usually precedes the regular song, repeating it a number of times but not giving a note of the usual 'Whip-poor-will' call. It also did the same while on the wing. This bird was supposed to be a female as no conspicuous light area was visible on the tail. If so, she was capable of singing the same as the male for I later heard and saw her sing, both from the fence and while on the ground in the middle of the road. She finally flew and was followed by another bird which may have been her mate."

Of the whippoorwill's minor notes, we have seen above that the growling gr-gr-gr or gaw-gaw-gaw is presumably associated with courtship. I have never heard the note except when two (or more) birds were together, on or near the ground. This note suggests a little a note of the female woodcock, which is used under similar circumstances. The whirring whup-whup-whirr is evidently an alarm note.

A. Dawes DuBois (1911) mentions two other notes, evidently of alarm. He says: "She fluttered from the spot as she had done the previous day, but this time uttering a very low hissing or 'soughing' sound," and again, "She kept vigilant watch, however, at a short distance, moving about near the ground with a remarkably noiseless flight but uttering a 'chip' or 'whit' similar or that of a domestic chick."

If we are outdoors at the end of the day, when the sun has gone down and all the ways are darkened, if we are walking along a quiet country road fringed by woods and open fields, or, in a canoe, are drifting down a stream flowing softly past farmland--pastures, stone walls, or orchards--and if we listen, what do we hear? If it is summer, the bird songs are gradually fading away as the birds fall asleep, the robin chorus lessens when the light grows dim, and when it is almost dark a field sparrow may sing for the last time before night comes. If it is autumn we hear little bird song, only a short period of chipping and clucking before the birds settle for the night and after that only the insects that will sing the night through. But let us listen. Was that a whippoorwill? Do we hear a whippoorwill, or do we imagine we hear one because the scene has changed to a world of shadows--the whippoorwill's world--and association has brought the bird to our mind; and its song has come to our ears! The song is faint and comes from far away. Perhaps we did not hear it; perhaps there was no song to hear.

This is a peculiarity of the whippoorwill's song; it is so bound up with association that we are sometimes misled. It is the same with the bluebird when we listen for its song over the brown fields of March.

Field marks.--The whippoorwill and the nighthawk appear very much alike when sitting either on the ground or along a horizontal branch of a tree, for in such situations it is difficult to see the points where the two birds differ. The whippoorwill is bristly about the mouth; the nighthawk is not. The tips of the whippoorwill's folded wings do not come to the end of the rounded tail, whereas the nighthawk's wings project beyond the forked tail. The whippoorwill has a narrow line of white on the upper breast. The corresponding mark on the nighthawk is broader and includes the throat. Perhaps the best mark for diagnosis is the pale, barred sides of the nighthawk. For purposes of field identification this part of the whippoorwill may be said to be unbarred.

In the air the distinguishing mark of the nighthawk is the conspicuous spot of white in the wing. The whippoorwill lacks this mark. The flight of the two birds (see above) is very different and identifies them at a glance.

The chuck-will's widow, although similar to the whippoorwill in plumage, is a much larger bird.

Enemies.--The clearing away of a large part of the North American wilderness during the past two centuries or so has not materially affected the whippoorwill; it drove the bird back from the settlements a little way, farther and farther as the towns grew in extent and became the great cities of today, but at the present time, not far beyond the city limits, whippoorwills find miles of country wild and secluded enough for their breeding purposes. Fifteen miles from the city of Boston, Mass., for example, as well as within a mile or two of many small towns in the state, the bird is still abundant, nesting on the dry wooded ridges and eskers.

This ability to flourish as man advanced into the country, when so many birds failed to hold their own, may be accounted for by the habits and equipment of the whippoorwill, which, when it moves about, is "bescreened in night" and is so obscurely colored that we may say "the mask of night is on its face" even in the daytime, as it lies motionless on a carpet of dead leaves.

If the bird should be discovered and attacked, we may imagine how often the whippoorwill, with its marvelous powers of flight, may escape hawk, owl, or fox.

Fall.--We rarely see whippoorwills in autumn, but as we hear them sing not infrequently at this season we know that they sometimes linger in New England almost to the end of September. A time when hard frosts are at hand, which will either kill the insects or hasten them into retirement.

Taverner and Swales (1907) report an unusual gathering of whippoorwills on Point Pelee, Ontario. They say: "In our various September visits we have usually found them more or less common, but at that season they are much quieter, and seldom do more than call a few times in the early evening and then cease. Sometimes one will be heard again through the night, but more often not. September, 1905, beginning the 4th, we saw from one to six until the 13th, when a great flight of them appeared on the Point. That day, in the red cedar thickets near the extremity of the Point, we flushed thirty between twelve and half-past one in the afternoon."

Winter.--George Nelson, who has known the whippoorwill for years in its winter quarters on the east coast of Florida, tells me that the bird is pretty evenly distributed in the country about Sebastian, frequenting chiefly the ridges and hammocks where, during the day, it rests on the ground or on the trunk of a fallen tree. Not infrequently, as Mr. Nelson has been driving after dark along U.S. Route 1, a bird has started up from almost beneath the wheels of his car and has flown off in the glare of the headlights. He says that the bird is not in song during winter, but just before it starts northward, late in March, it sings for a few evenings, and that its departure invariably coincides with the arrival of the chuck-will's-widow.

Each evening during my stay at Sebastian with Mr. Nelson in mid-February 1931, just as it was beginning to grow dark, a whippoorwill appeared in the dooryard, a clearing in a dense hammock on the shore of the Indian River. The bird perched lengthwise here and there on the thick limbs of a live oak, well up in the big tree, but clearly visible from the ground, and made frequent sallies out into the air, sometimes sweeping clear away from the tree, sometimes only flitting among its branches, returning either to the perch from which it had flown, or to another one. Presumably these sallies were made in pursuit of flying insects--there was a businesslike air in the bird's behavior--but there was no sound of any snapping of the beak audible to me as I stood near the foot of the tree. Our first intimation that the bird had arrived from its day's seclusion was the sound of a low chuck repeated at short intervals. The bird gave this note from its perch and from the air; it was very similar to the introductory note in the whippoorwill song, but a little sharper. As the bird flew about, it sailed a good deal, wheeling around with some tilting from one side to the other, the wings held out straight and flat from the body with no, or very little, bend at the wrist joint. I was strangely reminded of the flight of a shearwater--the whippoorwill seeming to avoid the branches as the shearwater avoids the tops of the waves, tilting over them as it sails.

This was when the bird was moving slowly, but at times it increased its speed and executed the most intricate maneuvers, appearing and disappearing among the branches, ever changing its direction, either sailing or flapping its wings, swerving sharply from side to side, heeling over till one wing pointed nearly to the zenith and the other to the earth, then snapping back to an even keel. It shot straight upward, dived head downward, and doubled back, twisting and gyrating with such rapidity that it seemed to be tumbling about in the air. The turns were so quick and the pace so reckless that the bird appeared in a frenzy and in danger of dashing itself against a limb of the tree, yet from the midst of these complicated evolutions it instantly righted itself and, with a flash of wings, settled flat and motionless on its perch.

Although there was the appearance of a lack of caution in these mad dashes among the network of branches, we were convinced, as we watched, that the bird governed its movements with perfect precision, with the acme of coordination.

The flight seemed silent; even when the bird passed within a few feet of my head, I heard no sound. It appeared to be alone, and after remaining for ten minutes or so, it flew off, and we heard or saw no more of it until the next evening.

When we flashed a light on it, the eye gleamed back a bright orange.

Mr. Nelson said that earlier in the winter the behavior of the bird had been different. It came about the house every evening for a while, visiting a small tree (Assonia) to which insects were attracted by big clusters of open flowers. This tree was about 10 feet tall with large leaves but plenty of open space between the branches. The bird went to the ground after each flight into the tree, and it appeared to Mr. Nelson that the insects, as they flew among the flowers, could best be seen against the sky from this point. The bird did not return to this tree after the flowers had faded.

During a second visit to Florida, more than a month later, I saw, presumably, the same bird again. It acted exactly as it had before, perching, indeed, on the identical spot on the limb of the live oak that had been a favorite perch in February. On this occasion also only one bird visited the tree, and while feeding was silent except for the low chuck. On March 24, after the bird had been to the tree and had gone away, I heard him singing off in the hammock. This singing on his winter quarters indicated that he felt spring was here, and it was time to leave for his summer home in the north.

 


Whip-poor-will*
Caprimulgus vociferus [Eastern Whippoorwill]
Contributed by Winsor Marrett Tyler

*Original Source: Bent, Arthur Cleveland. 1940.  Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 176: 163-183. United States Government Printing Office

 


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