Whippoorwills come alive during night

Cathy Carnes
Special to NEW Media

One of my fondest childhood memories was listening to the enchanting calls of the whippoorwills and mournful wails of the foghorn from my open bedroom window while drifting off to sleep on summer nights. Lake Michigan was not that far from our house; an extensive mixed deciduous evergreen forest, dominated by white cedars flourished between us and the lake. That forest was home to whippoorwills.

We never saw these elusive birds. That’s because, according to CornellLab All About Birds (AAB) website, the Eastern whippoorwill is nocturnal and near invisible in the forests where it lives. Its feather coloration, a mottled gray and brown, blends in so well with the leaf litter and tree bark the bird seems to become one with its forest environment. In addition, its round head and heavy chest give it a squat, low to the ground stature, camouflaging its presence even more.

There is much to glean about the life history of this elusive bird from the AAB website. During the day, whippoorwills essentially spend their time motionless in their forest habitats, nesting or roosting on the ground, or perching on low tree limbs. It’s the night that brings them alive.

Come dusk, if there is a whippoorwill about you cannot help but hear it. The birds announce their presence with a loud, emphatic and distinct call, essentially repeating their name again and again for all to hear. The first and third syllables of their “song” are voiced with real determination. It’s a thrill to hear this call on summer nights.

According to AAB, at dawn and dusk, and on moonlit nights, whippoorwills can rise up to 15 feet off the forest floor sweeping up insects up to two inches long in their very large, wide mouths until it gets too dark to see their prey. It’s the black silhouettes of the insects painted on dimly lit skies that reveals them to the birds.

During the breeding season, males set up territories. They proclaim these fiefdoms by calling along its perimeter and by chasing off intruders while making aggressive calls and hisses, their right to their territory further emphasized with raised wings and open mouths.

Whippoorwills breed two times per year and usually lay two eggs per clutch. The cream-colored eggs are speckled with various hues of lavender or brown. While there is no structural nest, the eggs, young, and adults are all so well camouflaged by their coloring that they are almost impossible to see.

Interesting, the birds’ egg laying is timed with the lunar cycle, the eggs hatching about 10 days before a full moon. This celestial synchrony is amazing and works well for the birds as moonlit nights allow adults to forage more successfully for insects to feed their growing young.

The chicks move around soon after hatching, making it difficult for predators to detect them. At about eight days old, they molt into highly camouflaged plumage. The male whippoorwill frequently checks out possible intruders near the nest by hovering in place with his body almost straight up and flashing his broad, white-tipped tail feathers. Both parents will feign injury to distract predators from the nest.

The “song” of the whippoorwill, so commonly heard in my youth, is now much rarer to hear. Their numbers have declined by about 61% (2% per year) between 1966 and 2019 according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. They face several threats including habitat loss due to agriculture, urbanization, and fire suppression. They are also vulnerable to collisions with cars because they often fly over or sit on roadways while foraging.

Whippoorwills are considered medium-distance migrants. They breed in the eastern half of the U.S and southeastern Canada and in the fall they migrate to Mexico and Central America for the winter. While whippoorwills are generally solitary, they travel together in loose flocks during the spring and fall.

Listen for whippoorwills now near their forest habitats before they head south. Their calls will stay with you, eliciting those warm summer nights, aglow in soft moonlight and alive with the mysteries of these nocturnal birds.

Cathy Carnes is a retired biologist in Oconto who worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Green Bay Field Office and prior to that with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Regulatory Branch in Buffalo, New York. As endangered species coordinator for the USFWS, she helped conserve and recover federally listed threatened and endangered species in Wisconsin.