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  • September 10th, 2013

The Night Has a Thousand Eyes


By Joel M. Vance

They glow a devilish red…

Headlights shining on a whippoorwill in the spooky midnight hour seem to reflect the fires of Hell reflected from its huge eyes.  Poor misunderstood bird!

Once a common woodland bird in the eastern United States and southern Canada, it now is in sharp decline.

The National Audubon Society reports a 57 percent decline in the bird’s population in the last 40 years.  Habitat loss is the apparent main culprit, although pesticide spraying that kills off the insects whippoorwills feed on probably is another suspect—just as it is with various bats, also in sharp decline.

The whippoorwill is far more often heard than seen.  Its incessant call either is a soothing voice of the night or a grating hymn to insomnia, depending on the listener.  No bird has more folklore, mostly wrong, associated with it.

Henry Thoreau, spokesperson for bucolic solitude, was a fan of the whippoorwill. “The note of the whip-poor-will, borne over the fields, is the voice with which the woods and moonlight woo me,” he said.  Others have not been so lyrical.  Ornithologist Elliott Coues said the whippoorwill is “a shady character, oftener heard than seen, of recluse nocturnal habits and perfectly noiseless flight, in the breeding season ceaseless in uttering with startling vehemence its uncouth cries.”

So much for moonlight wooing.

Coues wasn’t totally anti-whippoorwill.  He also said, more moderately, “…those scarce-embodied voices of the night, here, there, and everywhere unseen, but shrilling on the ear with sorrow-stricken iteration.”
The bird’s Latin name is Caprimulgus vociferus and a more vociferous bird does not exist.  The incessant call goes on and on until some folks liken it to auditory torture.  Naturalist John Burroughs once counted 1,088 continuous calls by a whippoorwill, then 390 more after the bird paused for an instant (maybe for artificial respiration).
Ornithologist Alexander Sprunt Jr. counted 834 continuous calls by a chuck- will’s-widow, the other of the 67 family members likely to be heard in the eastern United States.  The third is the poor will, a southwestern version of the familiar night caller.  Nighthawks are a relative, but without a variation of the familiar song.

On June 2, 1983, bird enthusiast Pete Laurie of Johns Island, South Carolina, counted 2,616 calls between 2:45 a.m. and 4:19 a.m. with a brief pause of 2-3 seconds every 25 to 100 calls.  It takes a strong will to hear that many repetitions without screaming, “Shut up!”

Coues may have regarded the whippoorwill’s call as coarse, but to some Indians it was a cause for concern.    The Omaha Indians believed if you heard the call, which they translated as “hoia, hohin?” and answered “no” and the bird ceased to call, you were doomed.  Of course, someone who goes around shouting “No!” at bird questions likely doesn’t have a very bright future anyway.
Other Indians had different beliefs–the Utes of Colorado thought that the whippoorwill was a night god and could transform a frog into the moon.  The Iroquois theorized that moccasin flowers were whippoorwill shoes.

For the athlete with a pulled muscle, folklore has it that if you turn somersaults in concert with a whippoorwill’s call it will cure the backache.  Might work…but don’t rule out a hot shower and some sack time.

In New England, some thought the birds stole the souls of the departed—probably because of their nocturnal habits and noiseless flight (they have frayed feathers, like owls, that enable them to fly like avian B-2 bombers).

A whippoorwill landing silently on a log next to you in the middle of the night can be as unnerving as a werewolf, but it’s no supernatural being, nor threat to your body and soul.  And it won’t be silent for long.  A male whippoorwill lives to sing, even though its song is pretty limited. It says it’s name….over and over and over.

On a more practical level, some gardeners time corn planting to the return of whippoorwills (they migrate as far south as Honduras and in spring as far north as southern Canada).

There are about 70 species of birds in the Caprimulgidae family, including the Chuck-Will’s-Widow and Poor-Will, and the one most likely seen in daylight, the Nighthawk.  All are familiarly (and erroneously) called “goatsuckers” because folks once thought they flew under goats and nursed on them.  Actually the birds, if they did fly under goats, were catching bugs off the animals.

Two whippoorwill cousins are not likely to be heard in some areas, the Poor-Will and the Pauraque.  The Poor-Will ranges as far east as Iowa and the Pauraque has extended into New Mexico and Texas, but ranges mostly south of there.  Almost everyone has seen another close cousin, the Nighthawk, familiar to small town baseball teams who play at night.  They swoop through the lights after bugs and  pull out of their power dives so dramatically they make a booming sound that has earned them the nickname “bullbats.”  Southern kids used to build a whirring toy on a string that imitated the sound.

Whippoorwills have few natural enemies.  Foxes and weasels may catch one napping or nesting, but it’s rare—the whippoorwill’s camouflage is so near-perfect that only movement will betray it (and they won’t move unless you nearly step on them).

Not only does the bird’s plumage hide it; a membrane closes over its eyeball to conceal the one shiny object the bird has.  Further, whippoorwills perch lengthwise on branches so they look, at rest, like a knot in the wood.  I’ve found them only by seeing them land and even then it takes patience and luck to separate them from the wood they perch on.

Early American settlers were familiar with a European cousin of the whippoorwill, the nightjar, and brought the legend of them sucking milk from goats with them.
One ornithologist, a whippoorwill enthusiast, wrote that an adult whippoorwill probably catches more mosquitoes in a single night’s feeding than the average purple martin does in its lifetime.
Both whippoorwills and chuck-will’s- widows have “rictal bristles” protruding forward from their mouths.  Some experts think that increases the size of the bird’s insect trap (goatsuckers fly with their mouths open), while others think the bristles serve as a bug deflector.

Like most bug-eaters, whippoorwills follow the insect trail south in the winter, migrating to the southeastern United States and on into Central America.  They are death on moths especially, their wide mouth able to scoop sizeable flying insects on the wing.

You can while away the hours imagining what could go wrong with a goatsucker’s dive: miscalculating the intersection of mouth and bug so the bug hits the speeding bird between the eyes at 30 miles an hour or, even worse, a bug entering the bird’s throat at 30 miles an hour, like swallowing a .30-06 rifle bullet.  Never seems to happen, though.

The poor-will is the only bird known to hibernate.  In 1946, Edmund Jaegar found a hibernating poor-will in California’s ChuckwallaMountains.  The bird had no detectable heartbeat and a temperature 42 degrees below normal.    Whippoorwills have the slightly distracted appearance of a spinster librarian who has misplaced her glasses.  They also seem sleepy, which, considering the hours they keep, is possible.  They are relatively unafraid birds.  Most turkey hunters have had whippoorwills land within a few feet            Thoreau wrote about goatsuckers fairly frequently and sometimes with a bit of awe.  He found a nighthawk on its nest and said it looked “so one with the earth, so sphinx- like.”  If you’ve ever seen a goatsucker either perching or on a nest, the sphinx reference seems ideal.

            My wife once startled a female from her eggs and had presence of mind enough to mark the nest with a rag.  I came back to it in time to photograph the precocious chicks before they gathered enough strength to flee.  It doesn’t take long–in a couple of days they can hop like frogs and in 17 days they’re able to fly 50 feet or more.
Another time, a friend found a nest when the female flushed and marked it.  We returned to it and so well camouflaged was the bird that some of the party never could spot it, even though it was framed by a small forked branch. The camouflage of whippoorwills is near-perfect.  The mottled browns are the exact pattern of leaves on the forest floor.  The bird’s doesn’t build a nest and lays its two white eggs almost always on a dead leaf forest floor in fairly open woods.
The male struts before the female, uttering guttural “chucks” during mating season, which in the Carolinas is from late April on, depending on location.  If something gets the eggs, the female will re- nest.  One ornithologist speculated the birds return to the same spot to nest since he’d found nests in the same place in successive years.  But he admitted that only banded birds would verify his theory.
Nighthawks prefer the flat roofs of buildings, particularly those with gravel coverings.  I once found a nighthawk nest atop the building where I worked.  The female was ferocious, hissing venomously at me, fiercely protective of her eggs.
Whippoorwills are among several birds that will feign a broken wing to draw off an unwelcome visitor.
Ornithologists are fond of translating bird calls into English: the meadowlark allegedly is calling, “Spring is here!” even in August.  One bird enthusiast translated the chuck-will’s-widow is saying, “Chip fell out a white oak!” and another heard it as, “Twixt hell and white oak!” which indicates perhaps those people had listened to entirely too many night calls.
The call of the name-sayers is the same, if you break it down, but the emphasis is in different places.  The whippoorwill emphasizes “will”; the chuck-will’s-widow “wid.”  Chuck is the largest of the American goatsuckers, a foot long (his Western cousin, the poor-will, is smallest at seven inches) and has been known to inhale small birds, as well as large insects such as moths and June bugs.  Chuck’s motto is “If it flies, it dies.”
No one has done research, but it would be interesting at the least, revolutionary to science at the most to know how a whippoorwill can fly through the night woods without hitting anything.  Obviously the bird has superb night vision.  Much of its feeding is done in twilight, but the birds also flit through the forest on moonless nights.
Their flight is soundless–like owls they have soft, frayed feathering that makes no noise.  Country singers have resorted to whippoorwills for inspiration.  Both Bradley Kincaid and the duo of Lulu Belle and Scotty advised their lover to meet them when the first whippoorwill calls (if the tryst continues until the final call, it’s gonna be a long night).
A pioneer legend said that if an unmarried woman heard the first whippoorwill call of spring, then did not hear a second, she was fated to remain unmarried for a year.  If the bird continued after the second call, she would be a spinster, but she could forestall that fate by making a wish to be wedded on the first call.  Considering how quickly whippoorwills call, a bachelorette had to be nimble with her wishes.
Another legend was that you could cure a bad back by turning somersaults in time to a whippoorwill’s calls, although you’d think that would more likely cause a bad back than cure one.
So, the whippoorwill flies silently through the woods, its presence a relentless sound, a lullaby to some, fingernails on a blackboard to others.  Goatsuckers have been with us through recorded history, in fable and fact, and always will be.  Those who consider the first robin or bluebird the official harbinger of spring are wrong.  Chances are the whippoorwill was advertising spring all the night before.

Thoreau had a knack for summing up.  He did it for whippoorwills: “It is not nightfall until the whippoorwill begins to sing.”

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