What Is A Whippoorwill?

Whip Poor Will! That is the sound I heard when I opened my back door just before dark one night last April. It had been a while since I had heard that haunting sound, and it made me remember some past experiences with whippoorwills.

Every spring the sound of whippoorwills calling, looking for mates from sundown to full dark, drifts through our woods. I usually heard them at lakes since I spend many spring evenings around them. I always wondered about the birds that made them.

One night I got a strong spotlight and went hunting. I was able to follow the sound to a pine tree near my camper at Clark’s Hill and spotted a big brown bird sitting on a limb about half-way up the tree. It was a soft, fuzzy looking bird about the size of a crow, with a short, wide beak. It reminded me of a big quail.

When the bird flew, it reminded me of an owl, looking like it silently drifted through the trees as far as I could see it in the almost dark. Although I heard them many times after that, I did not see another one until many years later. While camping at West Point during a spring Spalding County Sportsman Club tournament, a whippoorwill started calling from a pine tree right beside my camp site. The sun had just set and I got a real good look at it.

I looked up whippoorwills in my North American Wildlife book when I got home and got a few surprised. It says the bird is 9 to 10 inches long and eats moths and other night flying insects. Its wide mouth helps them catch flying bugs, much like a swallow does.

The surprise came when I read the whippoorwills spends daylight hours sleeping in dried leaves on the ground. I always thought it roosted in trees. Now I wonder if I have ever spooked one while walking in the woods, but don’t remember seeing such a bird fly up from the ground.

whippoorwills also nest on the ground, laying two eggs in the leaves without making a nest. That reminds me of the way chickens lay eggs. Their range covers the U.S. from the Mississippi River east to the coast and the southern U.S. all the way to California, and also northern Mexico.

There is a first cousin, called the Chuck-wills-widow, that also covers most of that southern range. My book says it is very similar to the whippoorwills but its call is slower. That makes sense if it is a southern bird!

Listen for whip-poor-wills after the sun sets this spring. Try to track one down if you can. They are very interesting birds, and a part of the evening around here.