When the Whippoorwill Calls

The Mysterious Folklore of the Whippoorwill

Whippoorwill
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!

Author: 

Joel M. Vance

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My Blue Heaven

Thanks to my father, who played the guitar, I grew up hearing whippoorwills call: "When whippoorwills call, and evening is nigh, I hurry to my blue heaven..." Hmm. Now I'm wondering if whippoorwills really do make their nests "where the roses bloom." :) The song has been recorded by over 100 artists. My personal favorite is by Leon Redbone.

Whippoorwill Sightings

I have fond memories of hearing whippoorwills while walking into Fowler Pond in Baxter State Park with my parents and later with my best friend Wayne Scott. We often camped at Lower Fowler Pond and almost always heard the wonderful sounds of whippoorwills in spring and early summer. 1959 was the last year Wayne and I walked into Fowler and we had great luck-heard the whippoorwill and caught our limit of beautiful brook trout. I miss those days and my friend.

Whippoorwill

When I was a young girl, we would stay and visit my Grandparents farm, here in WI. These were my happiest memories as a child. It was so wonderful to be able to be outside, and not hear car traffic, city noise. I would be so excited to go. When we left, I would cry, the 75 miles back home. Because I loved them and the farm so. I remember listening to all the birds there. Being outside sitting in the swing, or front porch. I would ask my mother and Grandmother what kind of birds were singing. One of my favorites was the Whipporwill. It was so different. Kind of sad, but soothing. It's been a very long time, since I have heard them. I thought maybe they were disappearing. I guess I'm just in the city and can't hear them. I sure would love to though. ❤

Sign of Spring

My mother use to say that when you heard the whippoorwill there would be no more frost that spring. I have found this saying to be true.

Loud birds!

Our home backs up to a Pineland Reserve, and while I find the sounds of nature to be soothing, my husband does not. In fact, he has a particular distaste for the call of the whippoorwill! These birds somehow manage to lurk in the trees directly outside our bedroom window, as if to taunt him, and while I can sleep right through their night calls, my husband has actually got up from bed to go outside and to try and scare them away. This annual ritual has become quite the joke in the neighborhood, and led a bunch of us to research this bird one summer night. No sooner had we read that "it is very difficult to see a whippoorwill, as they often hide in darkness," when one bird got tripped up in the light of our high-powered flashlight, and landed right in front of us on our patio! What a treat for all of us to get to see our loud and obnoxious little friend up close for even a few seconds.

Wippoorwill's Call

When we use to hear it in our neighborhood long ago, it was a soothing beautiful call. Since there has been more suburban development in our neighborhood, we have only that memory left. We miss it!

Whippoorwill's call

My Grandmother was a full blood Cherokee Indian, My Grandfather was Cheyenne Indian, My Father was a real red skin Indian, while my mother had some Cherokee, she also was Irish, But the Brown eyes and dark hair, came thought to her, it didn't to me, sure I get a wonderful golden tan I have hazel eyes, blue to green, then there is my daughter who is a card carrying Samish dark skin with dark hair, her eye's are more brown in her left more green in her right... We live in the wonderful Blue Ridge Mt's with all these Indian lures, some by the signs of the moon and stars, some by the signs of the body, there is so much of both I have found to be true and know to be true in planting gardens, even the pulling of my own teeth as far as bleeding goes and the right times to kill of our farm animals for the best results... I have always found that the meths that my fathers Cherokee family have thought me hold more true. I live right under the top of a mountain deep in the woods we have so many different birds here and the call of the whippoorwill's is a romantic call for us. A very easy call or whistle to duplicate just as it is spelled "whip-poor-will," these birds come close to you in the tree's still hidden. I have had as many as four or five surrounding me in my yard. These birds are only here in weather above 60`-70` I can't hear them in my house unless the widows are open, but I find them beautiful and a true joy to have, very fun for children of all ages... In the spring I open the windows to hear the different birds it is very beautiful sounds. I have had funny Red Cardinals follow me from room to room upstairs and down and hawks follow me when driving from place to place, they too are easy to duplicate songs but are birds of pray and will take small farm animals so most people don't like them. But they do tell you when someone is near. When camping we just worry about listening for black bears which I am seeing more and more of here.

I've heard the whip-poor-will

I've heard the whip-poor-will just once in my life, and I repeated the sound to my husband's mother and grandmother, they looked at me so funny! Thanks for sharing your story Kathleen, it really relieves me to see old traditions continuing, where in my family it seemed taboo to be proud of your heritage, having a pure German great-Grandmother yet never once was anything ever mentioned about anything, never a word on either side about Irish, Scotch, Welsh culture or traditions. So I have to gather info from the almanac to catch a glimpse of how to garden by the moon and so on, which I don't mention to anyone because they all think I'm crazy already.

night song

we were camping on Memorial weekend in a packed campground in Northern Michigan. The whippoorwill sang loudly over the noise of the campers. i havent heard one in 30 years so it was nice to hear. i recorded it on my phone to save to memories.

My husband and I were camping

My husband and I were camping at the Fox River in Michigan's upper peninsula. We woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of a whippoorwill. While it was pretty neat to hear one for the first time, it was also pretty annoying in the middle of the night lol!

whippoorwill

In West central Arkansas we have a bird that sings chuckwillswidow. It has been written about in several publications but I don't remember if they ever said it was the same specie as the whippoorwill.

whippoorwill call

When I lived in NYS on the farm we would hear the whippoorwill almost every night. I love the sound. It is sort of haunting and stays with you even when you haven't heard it in years. I miss it.

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