When the Whippoorwill Calls

The Mysterious Folklore of the Whippoorwill

By Joel M. Vance
April 20, 2020
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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Mason Jar full of deaths hour glass

I called her Lilly of the valley.
Like grapevines Of muscadines lining a hollow hill. Scents of moccasin flowers & daffodils .
Eyes like sugar sand from maple trees full of whippoorwills .
I called her the rivers moon.
Her Beauty was advent of a rose where no others bloom . Glowed like sweet honey an wild rye. She was just the devil in the soft southern sky .

Habitat Loss

We used to hear them every evening and enjoyed their
lonesome song. They were so prevalent around our little farm.
Now they are gone ? I guess the sale of so much rural area
around here, high way construction, subdivision building etc.
has cause them to abandon our area. To bad. progress sometimes
sucks !

A few years back I heard the

A few years back I heard the whipperwhill call outside my window at dusk... Several hours later I was woken to some form of witch trying to choke me out, hissing in my face....
All I could think to do was say the Lord's prayer.... thoughts? ( Wise ass comments need not apply)

Whippoorwill call

Heard a Whippoorwill cal this morning (August 17) in southern Jordan! It must be migrating? And, since it was morning, I figure it must be traveling.....


We live in Central Texas. This morning a whipporwill sang all around our cabin. It's been here several times this spring and summer.


As a child, teen and young man in Southern Maryland I enjoyed listening to the Whippoorwills in the evenings on our farm. The farm and I are still there, but the Whippoorwill has moved on. I haven't heard that beautiful sound for about 30 years. I miss it.


As a child in Virginia the Whippoorwill call was earmarked early on as a part of life. We lived on the beach and had many spring nights the window ACs stayed off with the windows thrown open for weeks collecting the salt breeze. Then my city grew and grew practically to the point where all trees were landscaped. I didn't hear them again for years. I've never heard more than one at a time, perhaps singing a duet with the Bob White.
I now have a little spot in the country in SC. Leaving the windows open is out of the question because of the heat, but I can hear him before it's even dark, while I put my chickens to bed. I work much more slowly, to prolong time with sleeping chickens and a singing Whippoorwill.


I LOVE going to our cabin in northern WI because I hear them all night long! I wait till everyone goes to bed and sit out on the deck and just listen to them all! Actually I am listening to them as I type this. Their songs and the wolf howls just lull me to sleep❤️


Mom's time was short. I was laying on my side in a recliner next to her bed watching her breathe. Each breath was slower to come to her. Each breath was shallower than the one before. It was the early morning. Those mystical hours just past midnight. I would doze off only to wake up and look and listen for that next breath. At one point, I woke up to a sound. A bird outside the window. I checked Momma. She didint breathe. The only sound was the bird. A whipperwill outside the window. She left this earth, on the wing of a whipperwill.


I have heard whippoorwill calls all night long when people have been dying in a house close by several times...you may call it folk lore but it's true


Born and raised in Florida. First heard the whippoorwill at my Aunt's in the Ocala National Forest. It is a haunting nostalgic sound. And reminds me of summer nights and moonlight.

The whipporwill

When i lived in southern illinois i use to listen to them every spring. I loved these birds and i .iss hearing them. I didnt know all the lore about the beautiful birdsexcept for the goats milk my dad told me that story

Whippoorwill call

When I lived in the NC Mountains we had one call every night during the spring. I loved hearing its unique call and could sit outside for hours listening to it.

The whippoorwills in Northern

The whippoorwills in Northern Florida are always a delight to hear each night. This year we have a humorous battle ensuing between three suitors (I can only assume.) It had rained most of the day yesterday and during last night’s semi-finals one of the males sounded like might have a sore throat. He may be eliminated as a suitor.
I’ll tune in tonight to see if he found his voice again.

whippoorwill call

As a young girl in the country, my father taught us to listen for the whippoorwill.......and we often heard it. Fortunately, he never told us all the Myths connected to the beautiful bird, that hides so well in the fields. We would often whistle back to get another response from the bird, until we could see it in the field.


When I was a child, the sound of the whippoorwill frightened me. When I would stay the night at my grandmother's on her farm, grandma would have to call my parents to come after me once I heard the whippoorwills. Now that I see some of the myths about death and bad luck, it makes sense. Their song seemed forlorn and sad to me.

Wippoorwill "neighbor"

I live in the country and I can count on each night hearing the call of the whippoorwill right behind my house where it lives in a tree and some nights perches on top of my house to do its singing! I love sitting on the porch and listening to it! :)

The call of the whippoorwill, first night.

Having just closed on my new home in Hot Springs North Carolina we brought the air mattress for the first overnight. The moon was nearly full, brightening the sky. The calls of the whippoorwill filled the meadow and the Pisgah National Forest in view.
No sleeping in the house now, the air mattress on the rear deck, we were lulled to sleep. We are just a mile and a half downstream from where the Appalachian Trail crosses the French Broad River. My new place.


Their sweet song puts me to sleep the lazy days of summer come back to my mind and calm me they are a lovely sound to me here in MO.


I grew up in central Oklahoma, west of the Mississippi river. They are very common Oklahoma. I would drift off to sleep listening to them.


Seen them, heard them, LOVE THEM North Florida


Article states that they are found into Louisiana; I live in West Central Florida now and lived for 20+ yrs in Southwest Florida where I have enjoyed their night calls.


Love their call, they are around spring and summer for us (central Indiana). The "repetitive" call can, if not carefully considered, drive a person nuts, but if you welcome it, rather than dread it, you can find a pleasant rhythm and actually return to sleep.. :D (when they are especially near the house, the volume is quite amazing!)


Every year I look forward to hearing the whippoorwills calling, because it's means summer is here. An I just love hearing them sings. It's like hearing an old bull frog when you are night fishing on a full moon night.


As a child I spent a great deal of time at my grandmother’s old home place. She and my grandfather would go for the weekend to garden and I would tag along. My grandmother called my attention to the song of the whippoorwill at nighttime. It is one of my fondest memories. It’s rare to hear one today, but that song is forever etched in my memory.


As a child I always tried to imitate the sound of a whippoorwill as I looked at their picture in my bird sticker book. It wasn't until some 45 years later, that I actually heard them calling in the evening, just after sunset. My friend and I were at Garden of the Gods Recreation Area in the Shawnee National Forest of southern Illinois. There must have been dozens of them out there calling into the night. It made for a beautiful ending to a fantastic day, exploring nature.


My name is Judy Meyer. My husband and I have 91 acres of property south of St. Louis. I love the Whip-Poor-Will and will call them close to the house. They will fly in around 9:00 or just before dusk. They are an amazing bird! <3


Years ago, my first husband and I went on a camping trip in the North Georgia Mountains. We didn't get much sleep, however, because a Whippoorwill would sit in the cedar tree directly above our tent and sing all night long.


I use to work an early morning shift and left for work at 4:20 a.m. I always heard the whippoorwill as I walked to my truck. Beautiful song.


I live in a rural area. Have been enjoying whippoorwills all my life. I have never seen one personally until recently. I found a whippoorwill nest in my back yard. A female with two eggs nesting on the ground. I have researched these wonderful birds and their amazing habits. According to the research the eggs should hatch on the next full moon. I am excited to see the hatchlings. I encourage you to also research these birds. They are very different from most other birds.



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