The Whippoorwill: The Bird that Sings its Name

The whippoorwill is often heard yet hard to spot. Learn about the elusive birds behind the famous call.

| January/February 2016

Birds often get their common names for many reasons: what they look like, where they live, or the sounds they make. A few even sing their own name in their song. Three of them are the Eastern Whippoorwill (Antrostomus vociferus), the close cousin, Chuck-will’s-widow (Antrostomus carolinensis), and the Common Poorwill (Phalaenoptilus nuttallii). Their song, heard mostly in the evening and night hours, is a distinctive whip-poor-will!

Masters of disguise

Whippoorwills and their related species belong to a family of birds called the nightjars (Caprimulgidae) and are mostly active at night. The Eastern Whippoorwill is a medium size nightjar, measuring between 8 and 10 inches long from beak to tail. It has a short bill and long, rounded wings and tail. Male birds have a white patch under the throat and white tips on the outer tail feathers. The white tips on the tail feathers are used in courtship displays and to distract potential predators away from their eggs and young.

Whippoorwills are masters of disguise, especially during the day. Their plumage is a combination of browns and grays with lighter streaks, which gives them the appearance of dead leaves and bark. This is critical in protecting them against predators.

Their mouths are short and wide, which aids them in catching insects on the wing. They have large eyes, which are useful for finding prey in dim light. Another distinctive feature whippoorwills have is their “bristles” – long, thin feathers around the mouth that help funnel flying insects into their waiting mouths.

Forest dwellers

Whippoorwills prefer heavily forested areas with sparse undergrowth, often located near clearings and pastures. These areas provide optimum foraging habitat for insects and cover for adults and young birds. During the day, they will often perch on the ground or parallel to the tree branch (most birds perch perpendicular to the tree branch) to blend in with surrounding foliage.

Whippoorwills – like bats, chimney swifts and swallows – are insect-eating machines, which makes them valuable allies in controlling pests like mosquitoes and gnats. At dusk, the whippoorwill takes to the air, flying close to the ground with its short, wide beak opened wide to catch a variety of insects.

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