May 2, 2022
Photo by Mykola Swarnyk, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Understanding and Appreciating Woodland Wildlife: Whip-poor-will

By Robert J. Reber

Just before dawn, the last of April, a farmer gets up early to do chores. The weather has turned much warmer and wetter the last week. The old-fashioned lilacs in the house yard should be filled with purple blooms in a week or so. It’s time for the big yellow morels to be out amid the sycamores and cottonwoods in the river bottom. He needs to sneak in and sneak out early this dawn, undetected, to keep his secret patch secret. The clear, repetitive call of a whip-poor-will breaks the twilight. He takes it as a good omen for finding morels.

Two fuzzy chicks resting in their shallow, leafy nest on the ground in a woodland.
Whip-poor-will chicks resting in their shallow, leafy nest. Photo by Mike Ward.

Two months later, it is past midnight on a cool, summer night. Bedroom windows are open. The farmer has an air conditioner, but it is turned on only in the very hottest weather: Air conditioning and closed windows deprive him and his family of the sounds of summer nights—bullfrogs, treefrogs, katydids, coyotes, pewees and more. 

The call of a whip-poor-will wakes him. Although some find the repetitive nature of the call distracting, he does not. It seems to be coming from his oak–hickory timber. He thinks how fortunate he is. While dusk and dawn calls in spring and fall may be migrants, a midsummer nighttime call means he has resident breeding whip-poor-wills along with springtime morels—wild things to both please his palette and lift his spirits.

Whip-poor-wills are seldom seen. They nest on the ground, blending in with woodland leaves and sometimes won’t flush unless almost stepped on. They fly at night when migrating, marking territory, or feeding. Whip-poor-wills feed on nighttime insects, with moths comprising most of their diet. Most of us are reminded of a whip-poor-will when we see its relative—the common nighthawk—dozens at a time, flying and feeding at dusk above woodlands, villages, and towns. Both belong to the family Caprimulgidae and are often called “goatsuckers” because of the superstition they nursed on goats with their large mouths. However, there are differences between the two in appearance and behavior.

A graphic with a photo of a mottled gray, brown, and tan bird perched on a tree branch surrounded by green foliage of a forest. Below the photo of the bird is text.
Photo by Dominic Sherony, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

If you want a nighttime adventure, venture into likely upland woodland habitats with a headlamp and scan the carpet of leaves. Look for glowing red eyes. A layer in the birds’ eyes, called the tapetum, that improves night vision reflects a beam of light with an eerie glow. Still, a night of searching can come up empty.

No one has more of an intuitive understanding of the whip-poor-will than a “river rat,” a term often used with disdain, but a label that should be worn as a badge of honor. River rats live along, and in, the rivers, in the bottomland forests, and the adjacent upland woods. While their home addresses may be elsewhere, their hearts are here among the wild things. To varying degrees, they live off the land by running trotlines and traplines, fishing for and hogging catfish all night long, “clamming,” hunting raccoons, you name it. River rats understand that the land is their sustenance. They hear the call of the whip-poor-will from dusk till dawn and have accepted them as their own.

Can you imagine a river and its woods in spring without the call of a whip-poor-will? The call adds an indescribable something to the river, the bottomland sycamores and cottonwoods, the upland oaks and hickories, the wildflowers, the smell of spring. Take away the call and something is lost, never to be experienced again. Naturalist Aldo Leopold named such species that add their signature of authenticity to particular habitats as an “aesthetic indicator species.” They add an “imponderable essence” to the whole. What a whip-poor-will adds has to be felt, an essence that is “beyond the reach of words” to describe or capture.

A graphic with a photo of a brown, white, and tan mottled owl perched on a tree branch with green foliage in the background. To the right of the photo is text referring to the status of owls and nightjar birds in Illinois.

Robert J. Reber is an emeritus faculty member in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition of the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. He has been a lifelong student of many aspects of the Natural World, including archaeology. Bob has served as a managing editor and author for publications such as The Illinois Steward magazine and the Illinois Master Naturalist Curriculum Guide.