When the Whippoorwill Calls

The Mysterious Folklore of the Whippoorwill

By Joel M. Vance
December 13, 2017
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!

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Missing my Whippoorwills.

During my growing years with my grandparents living in LeFlore County/SE. Oklahoma, one could tell the changing of the season by the birds, bus and insects. I looked forward seeing the first Dragon and Fireflies, Robin, Hummingbird, June Bug and Bees; of hearing the lonesome call in the evening of the Whippoorwill, hoping to hear another respond. I learned to imitate their whistle and with no hint of what I may have said, would exchange calls with the lone Whippoorwill until another arrived. Unfortunately, in the mid 1990s seasonal lines began disappear along with many insects and birds; trees too. Temperatures rising and the humidity! unreasonable when Real Feel temp is 120F. degrees. Basically no winter; by each January we are in drought condition under burn bans. Now retired, still living in the home I had shared with my grandparents, sitting outside the same backdoor under a darkening sky, I wait, watching and listening. The Katydids and Fireflies have all but gone. It has been many years since last I saw Dragonflies floating over the yard and heard the sound of a Whippoorwill calling out in the quiet of night. Sadly, the peaceful serenity and feeling of contentment brought by the music of the night and shared with my grandparents, seems to no longer exist to share with my grandchildren. There is no better way to end a day and ready for a good night's sleep, save a soft rain on a tin roof, than the mixing sounds of an easy evening breeze softly moving the leaves of the trees, crickets chirping, the whistle from a distant train and the calls of Whippoorwills.

Re: Missing My Whippoorwills

C. J., I think you said it beautifully in the last line of your post. "There is no better way to end a day and ready for a good night's sleep, safe a soft rain on a tin roof, than the mixing sounds of an easy evening breeze softly moving the leaves of the trees, crickets chirping, the whistle from a distant train and the calls of the whippoorwills." The only thing I might add is the dancing of fireflies. I was raised in Northeast Texas where whippoorwills were always part of our evenings. When I was little, my grandad loved to ask me what whippoorwills eat, knowing I would say "corn bread." Where that came from, I have no idea! Anyway, I've lived in Southeast Texas for many years now, and we aren't blessed with whippoorwills in this area. But my cousin, who still lives in the northeast part of the state, will sometimes call at night in the summertime while he's sitting out on his front porch, and he holds the phone out so that I can hear the sounds of my childhood home again. It's really special. I'm thankful for this forum today. God's blessings on everyone.

Whippoorwills

I live in Northeast Texas. The whippoorwill call is my favorite. I sit on my back porch early every morning drinking my coffee and listening to them. Sometimes I sing along with them.

Whipperwill

I live in central Illinois and have the pleasure of camping on my brother’s rather secluded timber & quarry. My experience is never complete without the whipperwill’s melodious song of the night. No siren’s call fills me with such supreme contentment and peace as I sleep deeply each time.

Whipperwill

I live in the country of south east Oklahoma during the spring time the whipper wills call around my house . I love their song . I'm 66 years old and have hunted fished and camped all my life. I have listened to them all my life and if I open my windows at night I can go to sleep by them along with the calls of coyotes owls and bull frogs .

Amazing

You are one blessed person to be able to hear the whipperwill, coyotes, owls and bull frogs. God's creation all around you. Praise the Lord!!

Whipoorwills

We are in western Maine, and have had the whippoorwills singing for the last two spring seasons. This month we even saw the female with two chicks, right outside our back door. They land on the concrete apron of our garage. Both times we have seen and heard them, it's been the around the Full Moon. The males sing for a few nights before and after, but now they're silent again. I'm waiting to see if they'll sing again around the June Strawberry full moon. They are fascinating, but as someone said, pretty homely.

Whippoorwills, Night Birds

I use to hear whippoorwills, but haven't for years now. What would cause them to leave the area??

WHIP-POOR-WILL

MY MOTHER USED TO SAY THAT THE BIRD WAS SAYING: CHIP-BREAD&BUTTER OR JUST PLAIN: WHIP POOR WILL. THE CALL OF THE WHIPPOORWILL ALSO DESIGNATED THAT IT WAS FINALLY SPRING AND THE CATFISH WOULD BE STARTING TO BITE. ALSO, BLOOMING DOGWOODS WAS A SIGN THAT THE CATFISH WERE BITING.

Whippoorwill

That's interesting, Joyce Hill. My grandfather always said they were saying "chip-butter-white oak". We lived in Arkansas.

the night bird

Maybe uncommon statewide or nationally, but whippoorwills are quite common in our neighborhood here in Loudon, New Hampshire. They return in late April/early May, and are usually gone by the end of September. They stop their calling as abruptly as they start - from around dusk to early dawn - usually my sleeping hours. While a little annoying at first, we have not only gotten used to each other, but quite fond of each other. As the woods around our home mature and habitats change, they will probably move on to more suitable locations. And we will miss them.

Whippoorwill Folklore

There seems to be a lot of folklore surrounding whippoorwills because they are seldom seen and sort of mysterious. My Mother used to say that there would be no more frost after the whippoorwills started calling.

My first time

I live in a very small northern town of Pembine, WI. (Approx. 16 miles south of the U.P. of Michigan.) For about the past month I kept hearing this singing noise around my house at night. Always saying to myself out loud...."What the heck is that?!? Finally I thought about it and looked it up on the internet. I've never heard this bird before in my life! I've heard the name in certain songs but that's it. Now while reading more about him I'm not sure if I like the sound or not with all the scary wealth of myth surrounding this night flyer.?!?!? I'll try to stay positive and decide weather of not to do my somersault next time I hear him! Lol

my first

I've been in this hollow in NC PA for over 25 years and heard them for the first time a few years ago. The first one perched on our rooftop up against the chimney to broadcast his song. I anxiously await their return every year listening to them on the porch every evening.

The call of the whippoorwill

I long to hear the call of the whippoorwill. It would take me back to my childhood. We lived in a woodsy hollow where their song graced the Spring evenings. The most beautiful and peaceful sound I have ever heard. Sometimes at dusk one would come sit in our gravel driveway and answer the call of another in a distance. We would hardly ever see them but once in awhile we would scare one up while us kids were walking through the woods.

Whippoorwill

I'm usually not one for "old wives tales" however, a dear friend of mine passed away on the 14th. The evening of the 15th ,a whip poor will started singing out side his living room window. It has been there every evening since.

The Whippoorwill

I live in Southern Indiana back in the country all around State Property,our whippoorwill been around for about a month now maybe a little longer.He is so loud my daughter was find with it for a few weeks now she said that we need to relocate Billy that's what she named him said she cant sleep.I know if and when he decides to leave she will miss him, me and my wife love to here him at night brings back when we were kids and would here them.

Whippowill

I sit on my porch every evening and listen to it Sing, it,s singing now as I type this comment, it just gives me pice full thoughts, I love to listen to the whippowills, they are ugly birds, but have a great call!

Whippoorwill Alarm Clock

I live in a rural community near Lewisburg, WV , along the Greenbrier River. We hadn't heard a whippoorwill for several years until last year. I have been anxiously waiting to see if they would return this year. We experienced cooler weather during April this year and the days are finally getting warmer. (Actually really warm- near 80 degrees yesterday.) At 3:42am, I got my answer. It was singing loudly, right outside my window. I was thrilled to hear the sounds, but hope he gets on a more familiar schedule.

Whip poor will

Living in the mountains of eastern Kentucky I wait patiently for April and the return of spring Knowing that the whippoorwill will return and the season will remain warm until fall returns and they migrate again .. My grandmother use to say once you hear the whippoorwill return it’s time to plant corn .., for me it was just the joy of hearing the beautiful song they sing and the fond memories that song brings rushing back from my childhood .But how sad to watch the evening sky fill with them in the fall as they fly away until the following spring.., ❤️

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.

wipper will

I just moved to Tennessee year ago bought property here back in the plauto mountains in I have about 20 around my place at night makes me sleep good

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.

I'm with ya...

Im in North Al. Every Spring the males chant for hours, all night. Like yours, right outside the bedroom window. I can chase them off, but they like that spot and are soon back.

The only solution is an electric fan to cover the racket so we can sleep.

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.

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