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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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.

Whippoorwill

My husband and I have been sitting on our back carport for the last two weeks, during this Covid-19 pandemic. So between 7:45 and 8PM, we notice hearing the whippoorwill calling. Today is Good Friday. We said we will make try to remember this next year (2021) on Good Friday Night, if we're still living. So, something to look forward to and also look back on during these times.

Whippoowil bird

There is a whippoowil bird outside singing at
This moment. I am 66 years old. Every year from a little girl a whippoorwil bird come each year. This is a baby bird. I think they love this location..

outside my bedroom

every night i hear a whipoorwil in my,back woods but tonight it is right outside my window ,i opened the door and it flew over,the house and started next to my bathroom window .now its back at my bedroom window . first time in the 24 years ive been here, its so loud , but beautiful

Call of the whippoorwill.

Sitting on the back deck of our rural Alabama home, my husband and I heard our first whippoorwill call of the season. In fact, it’s been several years since we’ve heard their lilting, beautiful song. With the crickets and frogs evening chorus reaching its full crescendo, the whippoorwills call carried loud and clear through the treetops. When we were children, it was a common sound here in the foothills of the Appalachians. Sadly,it has become too rare. The sound carried us back to spring evenings almost sixty years ago when we played outdoors till bedtime and parents forced us in. Grumbling, we would gather our jar with holes punched in the top and filled with lightening bugs, and make our way to bed.

Whipoorwill

We have recently moved out too hard dream home on 34 Acres full of woods and lots of Wildlife. Each night for the past 2 weeks we've had a whippoorwill around our front porch area making his call very loudly. He is a determined one!

Whipporwill

I have heard my first of the season here in Murphy, NC. So beautiful and soothing. I enjoy their melody so very much. Earth Mother has been so gracious in allowing me to live in a place where she has made a perfect place for them here in Western N. Carolina.. since moving here 3 yrs. Ago, i have been blessed with their return again and again.

Whipperwill call

Love to hear them. They are the sound of peace and tranquility to me. I love them and wish I could see them instead of just hearing their lovely call!

Whipporwill's Call

The first time I ever recall and recognizing a whipporwill's call was in the pre-dawn hours.of April 16, 2017. It was Easter Sunday and I was in Northern Florida. It was also the day my brother died of a heart attack. He was 53 years old. I always associate their call with my brother. It's a mystical sound to me. I sit here tonight in the same spot, listening to the whipporwill calling out, and think of my brother.

Whipperwills

As a child my grandparents lived 15 miles from a small rural town. In the summer I would stay with them. The whipperwills would sing all night. Loved to listen to them. Also the bobwhites would chime in when they got a chance.

Whippoorwill Serenade Always Meant Everything is Alright

Growing up in east central Oklahoma during the 40's and 50's I would often have to raise a window for a soothing breeze in the summertime. We lived in a 4 room house with no A/C. Night noises became an adventure; a hound dog or two chasing a raccoon off in the distance and the serenade of a whippoorwill were two I most remember. When the whippoorwill started his serenade, I knew everything was alright. Some nights I would wait to fall alseep to hear him. Often times, there would be multiple birds afar from one another. What a treat.
Our Dad often took us trot line fishing on the N Canadian river and always to perfection, we would lie on a quilt and fade away in sleep to the whippoorwill serenade and the sound of the river current and the sound of cottonwood trees.
I can't tell you the # of times I listened to him, but it was always a good thing as I knew everything was alright.

Whippoorwills

I remember hearing Whippoorwills all the time when I was little while I stayed with my grandpap. I use to love that sound. I have been trying to figure out how to get them to come back to the area. I have only heard maybe one in the past 30 years. It, like so many other things, is becoming a thing of the past.

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