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.”
Photo by Dominic Sherony/Flickr Media Commons.
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!