When the Whippoorwill Calls

The Mysterious Folklore of the Whippoorwill

By Joel M. Vance
December 13, 2017
Laura Gooch/Flickr Creative Commons

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Does the whippoorwill suck goat’s milk? Does it foretell death, marriage, or woe? Can your aching back be cured by its call? Few birds have spun such a crazed web of mythology and myth-information. At the heart of this confusion and misdirection is a medium-size bird, aka goatsucker.

Merit or blame for this bird’s name belongs to Aristotle. The wise philosopher took a frivolous side trip into illogic to report a ridiculous story about the whippoorwill: “Flying to the udders of she-goats, it sucks them and so it gets its name,” he reported.

Probably whippoorwills (or even more likely their crepuscular cousins, the nighthawks) were snagging insects as the insects congregated around the thin-haired bellies of goats. But Aristotle’s authoritative nonsense stuck with the Caprimulgidae family (the Latin word comes from capri for goat and mulgere to milk), and the common name for the bird family is the inelegant “goatsucker.”

Whippoorwill. Photo by Dominic Sherony/Flickr Media Commons.
Photo by Dominic Sherony/Flickr Media Commons.

Whippoorwill Folklore

Old wives worked overtime to whipstitch the tattered fabric of whippoorwill folklore. Here are some examples…

  • When a single woman heard her first whippoorwill in springtime, she must have felt her heart lurch in panic, for if the bird did not call again, she would remain single for a year. If the birdsong continued, she was fated to remain single unless she had been quick-thinking and made a wish upon hearing the first call. If she kept that wish secret, she ultimately would be married.
  • Whippoorwills singing near a house were an omen of death, or at least of bad luck.
  • A man could rid himself of an aching back if he turned somersaults in time to whippoorwill calls.
  • If an Omaha tribe Native American heard a whippoorwill’s called invitation, he or she was advised to decline it. If the bird then stopped calling, a person who had answered would die. But if the calls continued, the person would have a long life.
  • The Colorado Utes believed that the whippoorwill was one of the gods of the night and could transform a frog into the Moon.
  • The Iroquois believed that moccasin flowers were the shoes of whippoorwills.

Whippoorwills range east of the Mississippi and from southern Canada south to northern Louisiana. The night is theirs, although in both daylight and dark the birds depend on their superb camouflage to see them through. 

Whippoorwills do their courting after sunset. The male’s spring ritual is an elaborate one, involving strutting, throat-puffing, and a variety of noises designed to convince the silent female that he is The Male among a woods swarming with calling males. It’s almost impossible for a spring woods traveler to escape the questionable music of one of the family to which the whippoorwill belongs. If you venture into a forest in the weeks ahead, keep an ear cocked for the whippoorwill’s call and be prepared to make a wish, do a somersault, or see the Moon in a frog pond.

It could mean many things, according to the wealth of myth surrounding this night flyer.
The note of the whippoorwill borne over the fields is the voice with which the woods and moonlight woo me.

–Henry David Thoreau, American Writer (1817–62)

Have you ever heard the call of a whippoorwill? Tell us about it in the comments below!

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I’ve heard the sweet sounds of these birds all my life would love to see one up close, I live in WV and have heard this one for the last three days so I recorded it this morning so now I can always have the sound to share with my grandkids..


We have their close reletive the Common Nighthawk i have seen them flying over town calling these birds eat lots of nighttime insects like Beetles,Moths and such making them a valible way to control destructive insects


When I was a young kid, my grandparents had a farm out in the middle of nowhere. We would hear this birds song some nights. I don’t know why, but I always pictured and old jazz black man snapping his fingers and whistling as he walked through the woods at night. Kinda freaked me out, but always found it catchy.

He Tried to Sing Me to Sleep

As a child, we went camping on a lake in southwestern Arkansas frequently in the summers. Memorial Day weekend in '83 or '84, I recall my first time hearing the distinct call of the whippoorwill. I was about 10 years old, lying the the tent with my baby sister about 10pm while my parents and adult relatives were playing cards just outside. Panic ensued as the male caller was directly over my tent and LOUD! That zipper flung open and we scrambled into the laps of anyone who would take us. I didn't know what as going on but I was scared!...lol. Needless to say, I received a quick bird lesson and I didn't think I'd ever get to sleep because he called well into the night. Such a vivid memory of our first meeting. He certainly wasn't shy!


Sitting around a campfire in northern Wisconsin Listening to the clear call of a wipporwill.


I'm so grateful for this bird. I remember listening to this very distinctive alarm in my childhood. I recently moved back to the hill where I grew up. By the way, I live in Eutaw Alabama. My kids and I love to sit and listen to the song of the whippoorwill. I appreciate this bird and it's sound more now than in my childhood. Glad I am able to enjoy GOD'S creation with my children.


I was so excited a few minutes ago! A whiporwill just outside my window about 10 feet away. He was carrying on like crazy. It’s dark so hard to see. It’s the first one I’ve heard in over 6-7 years. We live in Boyne City Michigan. I could listen to that song all night. Just lovely.

whiporwill in May

I have heard the whiporwill for quite a few years while living in Western Maine. It was always deeper in the woods though and sounded pretty far away. This year, in May there was one calling from the woods and another would come and answer from directly below my bedroom window. I had heard that this was a sign of someone's death but I could not bring myself to believe it. This continued for about two weeks during the last two weeks of May and early June, then my precious son, aged 36 passed away on June 3rd from complications of Type 1 Diabetes. The whiporwill has not come near again...I can only hear it once more from the depths of the woods. I will never get over my son's passing away.


Always heard whippoorwills in spring. we weren't allowed to go barefoot until we heard the whipporwills


Here in south eastern Georgia, I hear the bird almost every night. Whether in the distance or in a tree near our home. I always stop and listen because its such a unique sound.


I just love to hear the Whippoorwill sing!!! SO peaceful although
we have not heard one in years!!! I blame it on the homes & business that are now down here, which were not back in the days
we heard the beautiful song!


I live in Vienna Illinois Johnson County and Southern Illinois by Shawnee National Forest, I hear the whippoorwills at night and that is one of my favorite things to hear every spring I can't wait to hear their songs. But when they quit singing how I miss it and can't wait for the spring of next year to hear them come back and start singing all over again.


We used to live in Poplar Bluff, mo. and would hear the Whipporwill at night and loved to hear them. Now we live in Central Missouri and don't hear them, I miss them at night, I loved to listen to them. There are so many birds I miss now, some are hit by cars and used to see some as a child growing up.


We hear them regularly in Sourh Knox County in east Tennessee, however, the large majority of the time it is actually the Chuck-will’s-widow, the much larger cousin. The calls are very similar but not the same. One has to listen very carefully to distinguish the difference. It has become much more of a rarity to actually hear the Whippoorwill!


I live in Central Texas near Belton lake& we listen regularly for a male that calls repeatedly!! Growing up around Lampasas county they were a constant to our summer nite time walks & camping adventures!! Very regal bird!! I adore the calming effects of listening hours !!


Growing up in East Tennessee, we would hear the whippoorwills call, the Bob White quails, and see lots of meadowlarks. I haven't seen or heard any of them in a lot of years. Loved trying to call up the quails when I was young.


I live in southern Louisiana and we hear the whippoorwill calls late in the evening and early mornings! It is such a tranquill sound, they come pretty close and then drift off! I love to hear them!


I remember them calling on summer nights in Southeastern Ohio when I was young, but had not heard them until this summer. I now live in the Thumb of Michigan and my wife and I heard one recently on our evening walk. Beautiful sound to my ears, it was so nice to hear after 40 plus years.


We had whippoorwills in the woods on my grandparents farm in southeastern Virginia. I loved hearing them in the twilight, as their calls are so liquid and soothing.


Growing up years ago, I used to hear them and Bob Whites. I haven't heard either in a long time. I didn't know they dates that far back in time. My grandparents lived in South Jersey and that's where I heard them. Never up north. We also had the fireflies. I had caught a few but then set them free after they did their thing for me. The crickets, frogs, also.


I use to hear them in N.LA and they gave me chills up my back. I never heard these stories but they just sounded so melancholy.


Does anyone remember the late country music singer Hank Williams, Sr. sang a song about this bird? "Do you ever hear a Whippoorwill...?"

Whippoorwill and Hank Williams

The song you're thinking of is "I'm so Lonesome I could Cry" Hear that lonesome whippoorwill
He sounds too blue to fly
That means he's lost the will to live
I'm so lonesome I could cry.
Great song.


I used to live in South Jersey and would hear the whippoorwill call every evening in the summer.

bird song

Theme song for Robert Mitchem movie "Thunder Road"

Treasured memories of whippoorwills.

My first memories of the whippoorwill's call were near my grandmother's home in the rural Shelbyville, IL area. We could hear them from the opened screen door of her kitchen in the evenings. If we heard our first whippoorwill while out on an evening walk, Grandma told me to lie down in the grass and roll over so that I wouldn't get arthritis. This was her tradition throughout her life and, to my knowledge, she never had arthritis. I live in Charleston, SC now. Just the other night, I heard the faintest call of a whippoorwill from the wooded area surrounding the ponds near my home. It brought back treasured memories of Grandma, as did this article.

Missing my Whippoorwills.

During my growing years with my grandparents living in LeFlore County/SE. Oklahoma, one could tell the changing of the season by the birds, bus and insects. I looked forward seeing the first Dragon and Fireflies, Robin, Hummingbird, June Bug and Bees; of hearing the lonesome call in the evening of the Whippoorwill, hoping to hear another respond. I learned to imitate their whistle and with no hint of what I may have said, would exchange calls with the lone Whippoorwill until another arrived. Unfortunately, in the mid 1990s seasonal lines began disappear along with many insects and birds; trees too. Temperatures rising and the humidity! unreasonable when Real Feel temp is 120F. degrees. Basically no winter; by each January we are in drought condition under burn bans. Now retired, still living in the home I had shared with my grandparents, sitting outside the same backdoor under a darkening sky, I wait, watching and listening. The Katydids and Fireflies have all but gone. It has been many years since last I saw Dragonflies floating over the yard and heard the sound of a Whippoorwill calling out in the quiet of night. Sadly, the peaceful serenity and feeling of contentment brought by the music of the night and shared with my grandparents, seems to no longer exist to share with my grandchildren. There is no better way to end a day and ready for a good night's sleep, save a soft rain on a tin roof, than the mixing sounds of an easy evening breeze softly moving the leaves of the trees, crickets chirping, the whistle from a distant train and the calls of Whippoorwills.

Re: Missing My Whippoorwills

C. J., I think you said it beautifully in the last line of your post. "There is no better way to end a day and ready for a good night's sleep, safe a soft rain on a tin roof, than the mixing sounds of an easy evening breeze softly moving the leaves of the trees, crickets chirping, the whistle from a distant train and the calls of the whippoorwills." The only thing I might add is the dancing of fireflies. I was raised in Northeast Texas where whippoorwills were always part of our evenings. When I was little, my grandad loved to ask me what whippoorwills eat, knowing I would say "corn bread." Where that came from, I have no idea! Anyway, I've lived in Southeast Texas for many years now, and we aren't blessed with whippoorwills in this area. But my cousin, who still lives in the northeast part of the state, will sometimes call at night in the summertime while he's sitting out on his front porch, and he holds the phone out so that I can hear the sounds of my childhood home again. It's really special. I'm thankful for this forum today. God's blessings on everyone.


I live in Northeast Texas. The whippoorwill call is my favorite. I sit on my back porch early every morning drinking my coffee and listening to them. Sometimes I sing along with them.


I live in central Illinois and have the pleasure of camping on my brother’s rather secluded timber & quarry. My experience is never complete without the whipperwill’s melodious song of the night. No siren’s call fills me with such supreme contentment and peace as I sleep deeply each time.



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