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!

SUPER DISCOUNT!

Celebrate Almanac Tradition and Save 57% with a Charter Membership in The Old Farmer’s Almanac Best Value Club

Best Value Club

You are invited to join The Old Farmer’s Almanac Best Value Club at a Special Savings!

An incredible value—57% off for you!
For traditional Almanac fans:
Just $29.97! You save 57%!

Get the best value for your Almanac dollar with these essentials. Claim you Old Farmer’s Almanac Best Value Club Charter Membership today!

YES, sign me up now!

Reader Comments

Leave a Comment

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.

Whipoorwill

I love in Kentucky now for a year. This is the first time I've ever heard a whipoorwill. Such a beautiful song to fall asleep to!

WHEN THE WHIPPOORWILL CALLS

Okay last time, the writer of the comments from Stephen Smyth is not Stephen Smyth, it is his wife, Linda J Howes-Smyth. For some reason I put Stephen's name and email, well because they were his comments really and meant for them to read that way only I forgot and wrote them like it was me. At any rate, I thought it pertinent to clarify our genders and sexual preference as I believe that is what one does these days and the comments left previously may have given the reader the wrong impression of Stephen, when it was actually me, LJ Howes-Smyth.

Whippoorwill

A whippoorwill woke me this morning at 5:30 am. I hadn't heard one sense I was a little girl. I was so excited made my heart leap for joy! I moved to Adairsville Ga on 10 acres love it here.

Whipporwill

When we moved to N.H. twenty years ago we looked forward to each Spring as the Whipporwill would sing every night. We enjoyed this for at least 15 years. Sadly about 5-6 yrs. ago it was gone. I still hope that I’ll one day be blessed again with hearing that call.

Whipporwill

Been hearing one every night, its beautiful.

Heard a wipporwil

I heard what seemed like a large group of males the other night.. I couldn't even hear my fiance on the phone. Important note. If you scream SHUT UP YOU Damn Birds! They ignore you

i just heard a wipporwil

sitting at the table around 5 30 am a ll of a sudden a wipperwill sang at my back porch. i got a terrible pain in my chest just for a split second...scared the bejeeebies out of me...i rememner them as a child and i hadnt heard one for many years.....the other nite my gdaughtere and i were on the porch and i heard one and she and i mimicked it......well i loved them as a kid......but tonite my grdaughter said gma i heard that bird agin...now im afraid i might die....i told her not to worry about it... then the one this morning.....wow.....
i dont believe its a death omen....although gma and gmpa said if u heard one in the day light it meant someone was going to die......now i love to hear them sing in, my heart i think its Gods way of saying everything will be ok just keep believing and enjoy one of songs/ jean gray

Childhood tales of the Whippoorwills

As a child growing up in the Piedmont- foothills of North Carolina on my grandfathers farm his way to get us to come in at dusk was to tell us a story about the Whippoorwills. He used to ask me if I knew what the Whippoorwills were saying when they called and he would say Whip-her- I - will, so I was afraid at dusk when they started singing that they were coming to spank me and I would run to the house as fast as I could.

Whippoorwill

Heard first one of year tonight when I got home from work, my Parents always said it was safe to plant corn and beans, frost wouldn’t kill them

Whippoorwill

My father was a locomotive train engineer in southern Virginia. During most of his career he drove a steam engine before the days of diesel locomotives. He used the whistle in the cab of his train to mimic the sound of a lonely whippoorwill, a sound I will never forget.

Whippoorwill

I’m 71 years old and my mom always made us wait to go barefoot until she heard the first whippoorwill in the springtime.

whip-poor-will

We were in the middle of a trio of whip-poor-wills at our campsite last night, one was on the branch above our tent! It was glorious!

Whippoorwill

Every morning when I’m leaving for work. There is a Whip-poor-will that I trade sounds with beforeI get into my truck. At times he will almost come out of the woods into my yard.

Whiperwill singing

There is a whiperwill outside of my window he never stops night after night. How do I get rid of it?

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