Call of the Whippoorwill
There was a marsh not far behind the house where I grew up in Central Wisconsin. On hot summer nights when we had every window in the house open, the whippoorwill would often begin calling when it was almost dark, about 9:30 PM.
Named for its call, the whippoorwill is a nocturnal bird that catches insects like mosquitoes and moths at night on the wing. With it’s superior camouflage, even if it were to venture out in daylight hours it would likely go unnoticed by most people. It is a medium sized bird, mostly brown with gold, almost orange speckles all over it, with some black and grayish white accents.
Whippoorwills nest on the ground amongst dead leaves in a shaded spot, laying only two eggs at a time. It does not construct a nest, but simply lays the eggs directly on the ground among the dead leaves. When walking in the area close to the eggs, which are not at all obvious, because the well-camouflaged bird is usually sitting on them, the bird will not fly away unless you practically step on it – by accident of course, since it is very hard to see. Both the male and female birds share the job of sitting on the eggs.
According to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, the female whippoorwill will often leave the nest when her chicks are only 7-9 days old and start another brood close by. The chicks are always timed to hatch just before a full moon so that the parent birds will have as long as possible to forage for food for their new babies. The most demanding time for the parent birds is right after the babies hatch when the new chicks are ravenous.
The Rarely Seen Whippoorwill
The Whippoorwill's Habitat
Whippoorwills can be found all over the United States, up into Canada, and deep into Mexico -- and even beyond into Nicaragua. Their song may vary somewhat in different regions. They are considered “long distance migrants” and winter from Florida, all through the Gulf states, and as far south as Nicaragua.
The call of the whippoorwill is one of the things I miss most since leaving Wisconsin. I can remember hearing it’s call even in the wee hours during the late spring, early summer, in this case around two to three in the morning, when everything was as still as it could be far out in the country, with only the crickets singing in the marshes as background for the whippoorwill.
Where I lived in Central Wisconsin, the woods included a mix of oak trees, maple trees, poplar trees, and tall pine trees. There were also open marshes with scrub trees (willows), brush, and some tallish grasses where bugs flourished, providing a rich food supply for the whippoorwill and it’s brood. These birds, according to Wisconsinbirds.org, much prefer the country and avoid urban and suburban areas as much as possible.
Call of the Whippoorwill
When you are listening to the whippoorwill’s call on the audio below, try to imagine you are hearing it through an open window, all lights out, pitch dark, far away from all other humans with only a soft chorus of crickets and peepers (tadpoles) for background.