Return of the Whip-poor-wills

I remember 1976 and 1977 as whip-poor-will years. That was when a whip-poor-will adopted our home grounds as part of his territory, singing at dusk and dawn on our driveway and around both the guesthouse and main house.

Several times our eldest son, Steve, and I sneaked down for a glimpse of him, but all we saw was a dark, shadowy figure that took off with a soft “chuck, chuck” whenever we came close.

One evening, in mid-May, we were nearly blasted out of our living room by a singing whip-poor-will. Steve skulked out the dining room door and crept around the back of the house, but as he neared the back porch, the whip-poor-will flew from the steps.

That was as close as the whip-poor-will came to our home. After that, he sang from below the back step as well as outside the guesthouse, during his half-hour, dusk and dawn rounds. My father-in-law, who had moved to our guesthouse, had been thrilled by the singing whip-poor-will. To him, the whip-poor-will song was the essence of wildness.

Pop died in March of 1978 and with him went the whip-poor-will. Except for one that sang on April 29, 1989, we didn’t hear another whip-poor-will until early May 1996 when our son Dave, who now lives in the guesthouse, heard one singing in the woods outside on two different evenings.

The following year, 1997, Dave heard one outside the guesthouse on May 20 and another down in the hollow on June 10, but our hopes for breeding whip-poor-wills were dashed when 1998 produced no whip-poor-wills.

Then came the stupendous years of 1999 and 2000. I could finally say that breeding whip-poor-wills were back after 22 years. Beginning on April 29, 1999, when a whip-poor-will sang at 1:00 a.m., it sang most evenings and early mornings until June 1 along the same circuit–from outside our house, down to the guesthouse stone wall, and then to the edge of the woods. In 2000, he started on May 3 and again continued until June 1 around our home grounds. Another one sang half a mile away near the spruce grove.

Many mornings I was awakened between 5:00 and 5:15 a.m. when he sang outside my bedroom window. One hot, humid evening he sang so loudly that I could hear him above the highest setting on my fan. That was when he sang 100 “whip-poor-wills” at a time, the most I had ever recorded, although naturalist John Burroughs, back in the late nineteenth century, counted a record 1088.

Both years, our whip-poor-wills resumed singing for a few evenings in early July. Of course, describing the loud, repetitive “whip-poor-will” as a song seems a bit far-fetched, but the male is using it to mark out his territory and attract a mate, just as songbirds do.

Once a female heeds his song and lands near him, he stops singing, faces her, and slowly walks toward her, raising his body as high as he can with each step. Then he circles her while she bobs slowly up and down, emitting purring and popping sounds.

In another courtship display, the female lands and responds to his song with a grunting “gaw-gaw-gaw.” Next, she lowers her head and trembles violently as the male sidles up to her and touches her bill. This causes her to move slowly away, followed by the male. Then he moves away followed by her. This back and forth courtship can go on for several minutes.

Still a third courtship display occurs when the female lands on the ground below a male singing on a branch, spreads her wings and tail, lowers her head, and sidesteps back and forth, halfway to the right and then the left, in a dance that lasts for 15 minutes. All the while she dances, she utters guttural chuckling sounds.

Watching the courtship of whip-poor-wills is not easy since they wait until it is almost dark, so the three courtship techniques I’ve described have rarely been witnessed.

Most people are only familiar with the whip-poor-will’s song which he sings from favorite song-posts such as boulders, stone walls, buildings or the ground at dawn and dusk and sometimes throughout moonlit nights. In Pennsylvania he appears as early as the second week in April, but more commonly his migration period is from the last week in April to the third in May.

Once a couple is mated, the female lays no more than two glossy white eggs, sometimes spotted with gray or lilac, on the ground in leaf-litter. She often chooses a spot near or beside a fallen log in an open woodland. Whip-poor-wills depend on their mottled, grayish-brown color to camouflage them when the female incubates the eggs during the day while the male roosts nearby. At dusk or shortly thereafter, the male takes over incubation until the female returns during the night. Then they share incubation duties until the female resumes incubating the rest of the night and the following day.

After between 19 and 21 days of incubation, the eggs hatch into cinnamon fuzz balls able to move in short hops soon after emerging. Usually the female broods them during the day unless they have two families in one season. Then the male broods the chicks while the female lays and incubates a second clutch of eggs.

Sometimes a female is flushed from the chicks during the day. The chicks move off in opposite directions and remain motionless while the female performs one of three possible distraction displays. She may fly around the nest, giving “chuck” calls of distress, feign injury by fluttering around on the ground, calling, shivering her wings, and shaking her body, or fly up and perch on a branch and continually shift her position, this time calling a soft “quirt-quirt.”

Males will also perform distraction displays if they are brooding the young, as central Pennsylvania writer Charles Fergus discovered when he and his neighbor found a brooding male. “…The adult bird gasped and muttered. Flying toward us, it landed with tail spread and wings askew, as if wounded. Its white outer tail feathers identified the bird as a male [females have buff-colored tail feathers]…The whip-poor-will half ran, half flew away. He chuckled pitifully, his voice trailing off in a squeal. Again he flew in close, again he scrambled away,” Fergus wrote in an article in Country Journal magazine.

Both parents feed the chicks at night by regurgitation. They fledge at 15 days and are independent after 30 days, although they may still take food from their parents.

Whip-poor-wills are “lunarphilic” which means they are more active when the moon is bright. They even seem to time the hatching of their chicks to a waxing moon so they can see more easily to catch, mostly on the wing, the large moths–cecropia, luna and polyphemus, as well as tussock and tent caterpillar moths that they especially favor. They also like mosquitoes, grasshoppers, crickets, beetles and ants.

Calm, warm, moonlit nights encourage them to sing throughout the night instead of their usual dusk and dawn routine, but once their young hatch, they stop singing except for an occasional outburst. Those males without mates continue singing so I can assume that “our” whip-poor-wills successfully bred.

Whip-poor-wills often return year after year to the same nesting spot. They are woodland birds that especially favor oak/pine forests interspersed with grassy old fields or other openings throughout their range of most of the United States and southern Canada, south through Mexico and Central America to Costa Rica.

First named Caprimulgus vociferus, referring to its membership in the goatsucker family and its loud song, by Pennsylvania ornithologist/artist Alexander Wilson in 1812, whip-poor-wills were once common throughout the state. But ornithologist W.E.C. Todd noted a decline as early as 1940 and during Pennsylvania’s atlasing of breeding birds in the 1980s, whip-poor-wills were found in only 17 percent of the commonwealth. Today, they mostly breed in the open, wooded areas of the ridge-and-valley province, the Poconos, and southwestern Pennsylvania.

Studying whip-poor-wills, though, is difficult because of their crepuscular and nocturnal lifestyle. Back in 1997, Robert Criswell of the Pennsylvania Game Commission and Chuck Yohn of Juniata College conducted a whip-poor-will calling survey in south central Pennsylvania. We reported our two whip-poor-wills and learned that altogether whip-poor-wills were reported from 27 separate sites in seven counties and that our county–Blair–had had the most sites at nine.

Last year, a Pennsylvania Breeding Survey of the northern saw-whet owl, funded by the PGC, yielded incidental information on breeding whip-poor-wills. On 100 routes throughout the state covered after dark from late April until mid-June, observers counted 147 whip-poor-wills on 28 routes. According to the Pennsylvania Society of Ornithology Newsletter, “with several birds calling at some points, observers may have underestimated whip-poor-will numbers due to auditory confusion.”

Just why whip-poor-wills have declined in the state is not clear, although researchers have suggested that habitat destruction, problems on their wintering grounds in the southern United States, Mexico and central America, or the pesticide killing of the insects they prey on may explain the loss.

Less than two centuries ago, whip-poor-wills sang in the heart of Philadelphia. Alexander Wilson wrote “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…” Mr. Bartram was naturalist/writer William Bartram who lived in the then bucolic environs of southwestern Piladelphia along the Schuylkill River.

Today whip-poor-wills are gone, not only from Philadelphia County but Chester County where it was once relatively common. The Pittsburgh area is similarly bereft of whip-poor-wills. The late Carsten Ahrens, writing in Game News back in 1981, recalled moving to a hill above a wooded ravine in Pittsburgh in 1941 and hearing a whip-poor-will all season. But it was “a call that no longer resounds in our ravine. The woodland down there has become a housing project,” he wrote.

As we pave over more and more of the state, the whip-poor-will retreats to less populated areas. There its whistled song continues to strike a thrill into every listener’s heart.



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