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

Leave a Comment


I heard one last year and hope it returns. It sang all night long. Bob Whites also come here and they are heard here in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.


I heard one last year and hope it returns. It sang all night long. Bob Whites also come here and they are heard here in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.


I heard one last year and hope it returns. It sang all night long. Bob Whites also come here and they are heard here in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.


I heard one last year and hope it returns. It sang all night long. Bob Whites also come here and they are heard here in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.

No More Frost

I grew up way out in the country just south of Tampa, FL. Even that far south, we would occasionally get killing frosts as late as early spring. Whippoorwills were abundant in the area at that time and my mother used to say that there would be no more frost after the Whippoorwills started to call. As far as I can remember this bit of folklore always held true.


Where I live in central New Hampshire we have several pairs from late April until late September. They call from sundown to almost sunup, sometimes for more than a minute at a time without hardly coming up for a breath. Pretty cool bird, once you get used to them. (they make a lot of noise during my "sleep" time) As the habitat gradually grows up and changes, they probably will move on to a more suitable location and we will miss them.


I live in central North Carolina and we have one right outside our back porch. Many nights we hear at least 3 calling. We love to hear them. I've see Bob Whites in the edge of our driveway, diving into the woodline, but don't hear them.


used to hear them when we were kids haven't heard one in many a year thought they went extinct.


I've only heard that when you hear the call of the whippoorwill it is time to plant


When I lived in rural Ohio, early in the A.M., waiting for the school bus, I heard one (or more) and I would call back to it (lonely child). I also heard a bob-white a lot.


About a week ago I started hearing this beautiful song I remembered from my childhood.....the whippoorwill melodious song! I feel blessed to have them sing for me! I live on the Outer Banks of NC!

Chuck wills widow

Here in the Mississippi might the song of the chuck wills widow sings as I type. S beautiful night song...

I get off work at about 3am

I get off work at about 3am in NE Arkansas and i am greeted by his calls when i arrive home. I always imagine it's a lone bird. I never hear calls overlapping. I was searching to find out. Either way i appreciate the sound and out gives me that feeling of "being home" at last.☺

Vinegar ridge Minnesota

Hearing them calling right now love the sound! Can also hear bats and an owl! So peaceful!


My GrandParents live in the southern part of KENTUCKY and when I would visit as a young Boy with my Parents in the evening and at night while setting on the porch we could hear the Whippoorwills singing.
I haven’t heard one in a long time now !


Rowan county Kentucky. They began calling about three weeks ago and now i hear them every night. Tonight i think they're on my land instead of across the highway as usual. Lots of moths for them <3


I was taught that if a Whippoorwill sings on a house someone who lives there would die within 3 days. Well 4 mornings ago a Whippoorwill that lives in these woods on Crowders Mountain sang from the roof over my bedroom. Never the less that moment was like in a movie. I stood quickly screaming NOOOOO! I prayed endlessly and everyone in the house survived. Praise God! So the moral of this story is… Old wives tales are just that! Old wives tales.

whippoorwill singing in Florida

I’ve been hearing the Whippoorwill sing for the past week. Last night about 9 pm it was singing real close to my lanai. So I found its call on the computer, set the computer close to the outside and was hoping the Whippoorwill outdoors would hear its song. After several calls the Whippoorwill outdoors left, but returned in wee hours of the morning singing up a storm. I’m not superstitious, but after reading all the negative folk lore about the Whippoorwill it creeps me out!


I’ve heard the sweet sounds of these birds all my life would love to see one up close, I live in WV and have heard this one for the last three days so I recorded it this morning so now I can always have the sound to share with my grandkids..


We have their close reletive the Common Nighthawk i have seen them flying over town calling these birds eat lots of nighttime insects like Beetles,Moths and such making them a valible way to control destructive insects


When I was a young kid, my grandparents had a farm out in the middle of nowhere. We would hear this birds song some nights. I don’t know why, but I always pictured and old jazz black man snapping his fingers and whistling as he walked through the woods at night. Kinda freaked me out, but always found it catchy.

He Tried to Sing Me to Sleep

As a child, we went camping on a lake in southwestern Arkansas frequently in the summers. Memorial Day weekend in '83 or '84, I recall my first time hearing the distinct call of the whippoorwill. I was about 10 years old, lying the the tent with my baby sister about 10pm while my parents and adult relatives were playing cards just outside. Panic ensued as the male caller was directly over my tent and LOUD! That zipper flung open and we scrambled into the laps of anyone who would take us. I didn't know what as going on but I was scared!...lol. Needless to say, I received a quick bird lesson and I didn't think I'd ever get to sleep because he called well into the night. Such a vivid memory of our first meeting. He certainly wasn't shy!


Sitting around a campfire in northern Wisconsin Listening to the clear call of a wipporwill.


I'm so grateful for this bird. I remember listening to this very distinctive alarm in my childhood. I recently moved back to the hill where I grew up. By the way, I live in Eutaw Alabama. My kids and I love to sit and listen to the song of the whippoorwill. I appreciate this bird and it's sound more now than in my childhood. Glad I am able to enjoy GOD'S creation with my children.


I was so excited a few minutes ago! A whiporwill just outside my window about 10 feet away. He was carrying on like crazy. It’s dark so hard to see. It’s the first one I’ve heard in over 6-7 years. We live in Boyne City Michigan. I could listen to that song all night. Just lovely.

whiporwill in May

I have heard the whiporwill for quite a few years while living in Western Maine. It was always deeper in the woods though and sounded pretty far away. This year, in May there was one calling from the woods and another would come and answer from directly below my bedroom window. I had heard that this was a sign of someone's death but I could not bring myself to believe it. This continued for about two weeks during the last two weeks of May and early June, then my precious son, aged 36 passed away on June 3rd from complications of Type 1 Diabetes. The whiporwill has not come near again...I can only hear it once more from the depths of the woods. I will never get over my son's passing away.


Always heard whippoorwills in spring. we weren't allowed to go barefoot until we heard the whipporwills


Here in south eastern Georgia, I hear the bird almost every night. Whether in the distance or in a tree near our home. I always stop and listen because its such a unique sound.


I just love to hear the Whippoorwill sing!!! SO peaceful although
we have not heard one in years!!! I blame it on the homes & business that are now down here, which were not back in the days
we heard the beautiful song!


I live in Vienna Illinois Johnson County and Southern Illinois by Shawnee National Forest, I hear the whippoorwills at night and that is one of my favorite things to hear every spring I can't wait to hear their songs. But when they quit singing how I miss it and can't wait for the spring of next year to hear them come back and start singing all over again.



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