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

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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?

whippoorwill

The Editors's picture

The whippoorwill is a noctural songbird. If it really bothers you, a flashlight shining its way will work for one night. But you may need to install a light outside your window. Turn on the light when the whippoorwill begins to sing and the sudden flash of light will frighten the bird away.  Otherwise, we would suggest that you call a local wildlife expert such as the conservation police or a local extension office.

Hearing a whippoorwill

I have a whippoorwill that sings on my back porch every night sometimes all night long. Haven’t seen him yet but he sounds beautiful

Whippoorwill

I was told back n the day, the first whippoorwill call , it was time to plant your garden

I’m in rural middle Tennessee

I’m in rural middle Tennessee and unfortunately haven’t heard a whippoorwill in many years. We do occasionally hear Chuck Wills Widow.

I live in Kentucky and just

I live in Kentucky and just heard the Whippoorwill calling. It's been about a year since I've heard it last, so it must be migrating through because it's definitely unique and not something I hear all the time. I want to hear good things about them so I'm not frightened by the myth of bad luck. I choose to believe that my whippoorwill is on a business trip and stops to say hello as he's passing through.

Whippoorwill call

I heard a whippoorwill call in the woods behind my home 3 nights ago. That's the first one I've heard since the early 1960's. Hoping every evening that I will hear it again.

All 4 of my brothers and I

All 4 of my brothers and I learned to mimic the call of both Whippoorwills and Bob Whites growing up in to woods of Central Louisiana

Whippoorwill Sounds

I remember to song of this lovely bird when a child in Sharon Vermont. Was my mom's favorite bird sound. Perhaps that is why it was a very soothing sound to me in my youth.

Whippoorwill

I live on almost 10 acres in a country community called Jordan SC. I can here the whippoorwill call coming from the wooded area next to home. Love the sound always heard the call as a child in Kentucky.

Whippoorwills

When I was in 4th grade we had to choose a bird and write a report about it. I chose the whippoorwill because I thought it wasn't very pretty and I felt sorry for it. I lived in a city where we never heard one call. I grew to really love that bird when I lived on a farm in Iowa and could hear them call at night. Now I live in the Colorado mountains and we do not have whippoorwills here unfortunately.

Whippoorwill

I grew up in Southern Md, not to be confused with he Eastern Shore in the mid 60's and 70's, Just south of Washington DC. We used to hear them call all the time. One day, Mom and I said, we don't hear them anymore. That was around 1998. We have never heard them since. We used to say whipperwill. Interesting article.

Whippoorwill

I live in Kentucky,originally from Texas. When I moved to Kentucky in 1977 was the first time I ever heard one. Long to hear them welcome in the summer.

Whipporwil

I grew up in south central missouri, I loved listening to whipporwils at night. I was born in 1961 so my grandmothers house had no air conditioning, the windows were open at night with the window fan whirring away. I loved that sound and one I treasure. My grandmother used to tell us when she could not get us to sleep, that the whipporwil was saying, "whip her or I will," which of course she never did, and neither did the whipporwil, lol. But sometimes it did help to calm us down. I have written poems about them and the feelings it's call invoked. I live outside of St. Louis now and do not hear their call, it is really sad for me. I also wonder what happened to bob-whites. when I was little we heard them in the fields all the time. By the time I was about 12 or 13 I never heard them again, What happened to them?

Whipppoorwill

First time I’ve ever heard a whippoorwill was tonight. It’s late,
1:30 am. It sang several times in the distance for about 10 minutes that I noticed. I do like the sound of it’s called. Must be happy it rained and the temperatures are warmer tonight in Evanston, IL just north of Chicago. God bless everyone and may you stay healthy during this horrible Covid19 pandemic.

Whippoorwill

Every evening for years now,right after sundown and in the morning at dawn we sit outside and listen to the sounds of the whippoorwill. We live in northwest Florida. Relaxing and something we look forward to.

Whippoorwill

There is a whippoorwill close to my house ,I hear him all through the night,for a week now.i live in east Tennessee

Whippoorwills

Live in rural area of Oklahoma and just heard the first whippoorwill call of 2020. So happy to hear one and hope for a few more soon. Have heard them every year for almost 30 years and hope they continue to have habitat to thrive in.

Whippoorwill

I live in austin texas and am listening to a whippoorwill right now. It’s 11:30pm and it has been calling for at least 30 minutes.

Whippoorwill

I heard my first Whippoorwill in many, many years when I moved from the "city" back to a more rural area last year (2019). Early in the morning earlier this week, I heard one again. It brought back memories of my childhood in northern Louisiana … hearing those lovely bird calls, catching "lightning bugs" etc. Then I recalled what some of my older relatives used to say in response, using the same cadence and sounds as the birdcall: "Jack Married a Widow" or "Chip Flies From a White Oak" … I guess it was a way of answering the bird call. I'm not sure what it meant, if anything. Perhaps just a whimsical colloquialism or something to tell an inquisitive child. At any rate, I miss the Whippoorwill calls and welcome the opportunity to hear them again.

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