When the Whippoorwill Calls

The Mysterious Folklore of the Whippoorwill

By Joel M. Vance
April 20, 2020
Whippoorwill
Laura Gooch/Flickr Creative Commons

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 called the whippoorwill.

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.

It was probably the whippoorwills (or their crepuscular cousin, the nighthawks) that 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.

About the Whippoorwill

Whippoorwills range from eastern Texas to southern Canada and east to the Atlantic. 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 best mate among a forest 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.

► Listen to the haunting call of a whippoorwill, courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

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)

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.

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

Reader Comments

Leave a Comment

WHIPPOORWILL

Chances are that if a man can turn somersaults his back isn't aching all that much. LOL!

Whippoorwill

Just came in from taking my doggy out, 11:45pm, and heard a whippoorwill. First one in a long time.

Whippoorwill

I have heard them many times in my life, always singing more than once in tandem. We recently moved to Florida where our house is next to an animal preserve. I think the one we hear sometimes is a young one; song is very clear, and just young sounding. Looking for a mate, I suppose.

whippoorwill

I went out side this morning to take my dog out and I heard the whippoorwill I told Molly that was a whippoorwill. Love the sound

Whippoorwill

I've often heard the sounds of Whippoorwills in the distance. While driving, or lying in bed. I grew up in the country so it was a regular sound I heard,only I didn't know what kind of animal was making that sound, nor did I realize it was a bird. Lately I have been hearing the sound of a whipoorwill every morning. It seems as though it's very close by. I never knew it was a sign of death. I lost a son 2 years ago, and have since seen the Red Robin meant to be a good spiritual sign. I'm not sure if I believe in all that, but it's interesting to know the mystery and , myths of old wives tales. I've always enjoyed the sound of a whipoorwill in the early mornings of summer, before the dew has lifted.

Whippoor will

I just moved into a new house and I heard a whiperpoor will my boyfriend told me what is was so tonight we went out back and I heard the whipper will so I went in and grabbed my phone and looked it up and seen it meant death and played the sound I told my bf I hope nothing happens as I walk back in house my little dog wasnt going to come out but did so my big dog came in and my little dog didnt I heard my bf calling her and then he heard a loud screech from a car slamming on the brakes a thump and my dog holler we ran out she had gotten under the gate we live on 4 acres and got hit she made it back in had a seizure I live out in the middle if nowhere so no vets open now she seems to be doing better I hope shes ok I'm still shaking I dont want the whippoor will around here

When whippoorwill calls

I had never heard the call of the whippoorwill before last Friday night (26 March, 2021), but my dog was raising the lower reaches of Purgatory barking in my back yard. I went out and heard the bird call - I was surprised how complex it sounded with a rolling sound to the second syllable compared to the three-syllable name - in the next-door neighbor's back yard. The neighbor asked me if I knew what kind of bird it was, and I replied that I thought it was a whippoorwill. Her husband looked it up and played the call back in his speaker phone. A moment later, the bird went quiet and my dog came up to the back porch and into the house.

Whipporwills

On Monday 03/ 22/2021 morning about 6:15 AM I was sewing and heard the whipporwill. That night I heard the call in my bedroom. I've heard him three nights in a row. We had a big storm this evening so he isn't out there tonight. We have one that sings every night under our bedroom window in the summer time. Haven't heard one this early in the year before.

whippoorwills

When I was five or six years old, whippoorwills used to call at night from right outside my bedroom window. The window went from the ceiling to the mopboard and didn't have curtains. I was so scared I huddled in a ball buried way under the blankets with my back to the window. My Dad told me they were harmless little birds, but hearing them, I could only picture them as huge birds with red glowing eyes and long bills with big fangs! I'm 65 now and know better, but their song still kind of gives me the creeps.

Whippoorwill Called Her Home

I was about 11 when I first heard the call. Had started some time, I'd say about a week, before Christmas. My mom was afraid it meant death and we would try to scare it away from our home. He called and called and called and no matter what we did, he wouldn't leave. Christmas day he landed on the eve of the house above my mother's bedroom. We shooed him away and didn't hear his call the rest of the evening. Early the next day I woke to the sound of my grandfather's wife driving up our driveway. She had come to tell my mother that her mother had passed overnight.
To this day, I've never heard his call again.
And I don't want to, either.

Whip poor Will

I enjoyed the comments from so many folk all over the country. I am over 90 years old and haven't heard a Whip Poor Will for about 75 years, but I remember their haunting call in southwest Virginia and still mimic them on occasion. I have a friend who likes to whistle the Bob White call and I respond with the Whip Poor Will call. I never had one that disturbed my sleep, as some of the other commenters have, so I look back with nostalgia, at the call of the Whip Poor Will.

Whippoorwill, add on

I'd like to add that I'm 60 years old....ummm, young....now. That means that the whippoorwills have been returning to the area for at least 60 years.

Whippoorwill

I don't know if one would consider northern Ontario as part of southern Canada but it is definitely whippoorwill habitat. I've heard their songs almost every evening since I was a child and again, now that I have moved back to the same area in which I lived as a child. Every summer, I can hear them calling. Sometimes, only one. Other times, as many as three. Probably one of my favourite sounds of summer. Next to the loons.

I read that the

I read that the Lady Slipper Orchid are also called Whippoorwill Shoes and if anyone rememebers the Fess Parker TV series Danial Boone might recall Boone often used the birds call at night

Relaxing

As a little girl living in Tennessee, I would often lay in my bed at night and listen to the sounds of the Whippoorwill outside my window. I often found the sound sad and lonely, but he would sing me to sleep most nights. Now, at 60 and living in the city, I haven't heard a Whippoorwill in years and I miss their sad, but relaxing song.

Whip-poor-wills

We used them all over the place on summer nights growing up in upstate NY just south of the Canadian border. Haven’t heard them in this area or here in Vt for over 30 years. I so miss them calling, I used to sit by my bedroom for hours on summer nights listening to them. I pray I get to hear them again someday.

Whiporwill

We have been enjoying the sounds of whippoorwills since my oldest children who are in their mid-40s Were just 6 years old here in eastern North Carolina. The first time we hear them each year just seems to be a very calming sound. We look forward to it

I’ve heard the song of a whippoorwill

One of my fondest memories as a child was sitting on the front porch in the evening with my grandparents listening to a whippoorwills sweet song! I remember asking my grandfather what it was and he told me it was a whippoorwill. Being he was Cherokee Indian he told many stories of what hearing the sound could mean, I distinctly remember him saying that it could mean death. Being young I didn’t think much about it and enjoyed the evenings we spent talking and playing and just enjoying listening to it. At that age I thought it was amazing that the bird was actually saying it’s name. Not long after my grandmother passed away and of course my life was turn upside down and so was his. My grandfather who turned 91 in January of this year became very sick the first of June and a lot of memories have flooded back to me and I started thinking I haven’t heard a whippoorwill is 37 years!?! I spoke with my mom and asked her if she remembers hearing the whippoorwill at my grandparents house and of course she tells me she did and also remembers my grandfather telling her it was a sign of death. I’m not sure if all of that was just a coincidence or if the Cherokee Indian tale was true but since my grandmother passed away not very long after hearing one I have never heard another one.

Whiporwills

We have a few here in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I expect to hear one on the Fourth of July. We hear them just about every night.

Will not stop calling

I just moved into a house in the Missouri Ozarks. The whippoorwills will not stop waking us up each morning, nice and early around 5am. At first it was super awesome, not having ever heard them in person before. After two weeks, it makes sleeping in a difficulty. The little dears sit right outside my bedroom window, or at least it sounds that way.

First Time In Northwestern Ontario

Late last night we heard the Eastern Whipoorwill; we had never ever heard that bird call before. It was loud and distinctive, so it did not take very long to identify it through a google search. Hope that it is a good omen.

Whippoorwill

I heard the call for the first time at 2:30 this morning! So loud and beautiful!

Whippoorwill

I live north of Kansas City, MO and out in the country on 5 acres. My husband & I have the song of the Whippoorwill to listen to in the Spring, night and we just love it.

Meaning of a whippoorwill call.

I heard a whippoorwill last night. He called four times. Surely it means Trump is getting reelected. Four more years.

Whippoorwill

I have a whippoorwill come to my burning bush outside my window every night singing for a mate I love to hear him but it’s more than once it’s several times threw the night listening to him again now it’s 5.13 am hope he finds her

First time

We've had our property for 7 years now. We did a mass tree planting a couple of years ago and since then we've seen and heard all kinds of birds and bugs. Tonight is the first time I've heard a whipper poor will though. He is sounding very bold and brave. Best of luck to him on finding a partner.

I have a Whippoorwill who has

I have a Whippoorwill who has made his "home" under a bush near my porch. He is loouud and at first I was very annoyed, shone a flashlight to try to scare him away, tried to shoo him away, but he keeps coming back. I'm resigned that this bird is here to stay and I'd better get used to his call...but why at 3:30 am?

Whiperwill singing

I hear it every night. Some nights it pleasurable some night's it's annoying.

Whippor Will

We have a Whippor Will or 2 that have made their home on our property in east central Kansas. So nice!

Whipporwills

I've been mimicking whipporwills since I was a little girl living in Oak Grove, outside of Paragould, AR. I believe they are social birds & are harmless.

Pages

FREE BEGINNER'S GARDEN GUIDE!

Sign up for our email newsletter by entering your email address.

BONUS: You’ll also receive our Almanac Companion newsletter!

The Almanac Webcam

Chosen for You from The Old Farmer's Store