When the Whippoorwill Calls

The Mysterious Folklore of the Whippoorwill

By Joel M. Vance
April 20, 2021
Whippoorwill
Laura Gooch/Flickr Creative Commons

Does the whippoorwill drink 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 one 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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The Whippoorwill's Call

I was camping with young children as their amateur astronomer in residence. I was out of phone contact. When i went to my tent for a night's sleep, i felt very restless without the company of my husband with whom I normally shared the tent. I pulled my sleeping gear outside to stargaze some more. A whippoorwill started calling & continued into the night as i was in & out of sleep. My husband died of cardiomyopathy during the call of the bird & star gazing. Folk singer - Laurelyn Dossett has written and sings of a whipoorwill. "Remember You Calling" - uncanny lyris to go along with the happening. I'm a possibilitarian by spiritual belief. Kathleen

Whipper Will

We have a Whipper Will that sits out by the front of our house and for hours will do the song he is so proudly known for. It is very soothing and we enjoy it. Thank God I do not believe the myths.

Whippoorwill Call

I heard one early yesterday morning up at our cabin in the North woods of Wisconsin..First time ever hearing one. Was making quiet the racket for awhile...now just reading the folk lore..hope it doesn't come true!

Whippoorwill

He has been singing outside my window the whole time I have been reading this article. As soon as I came to the end he stopped singing. Phew

Whippoorwill

I live out in the country in mountainous Southeastern Tennessee and the day after Christmas, I took a walk next to my forest stream near sunset, I saw a bird next to the pathway in the thick Pineneedles. I walked right up on it and could barely see it. It was a whippoorwill and it blended in with the Pineneedles and twigs so well that it was virtually invisible 3 feet away from me! It also did not seem afraid but now I realize that’s because it was relying on it’s camouflage similar to the way the Chamaeleon Anole lizard will look straight at you because it assumes you’re not seeing it. I saw it a few more times in the same general area in the dusk by the stream, I was honored by being allowed to actually see the mysterious and illusive whippoorwill in person!
I stopped seeing it as winter deepened and I never heard it during that time of the year. But in early spring it made its arrival and began its persistent call and happily heard a response. I can’t remember exactly what day it began singing but my mother had always told me when you heard the whippoorwill, it was safe to plant seeds directly into the ground. This year, we had some freezes even after the Whippoorwill sang and it made me wonder if it had made a mistake or if it just couldn’t resist singing early this year.
It has stayed near my house and I hear it’s call early every morning before the sun comes up and in the evening soon after the sun has gone down. It actually does seem to be on my porch and my roof and when I stand up to see if I can see the elusive bird, it becomes silent and I realize that it is watching me. I don’t feel uncomfortable with this legendary mythological bird making it home with me, I am delighted with its company and honored by its presence.

Whippoorwill

Every morning at five am without fail for the last week I have been awoken by a whippoorwill that sound like it is right outside my bedroom window. I have read that it is a bad omen, I live hearing it, but I'm hoping it doesn't mean death...

Whippoorwill

Every morning at five am without fail for the last week I have been awoken by a whippoorwill that sound like it is right outside my bedroom window. I have read that it is a bad omen, I live hearing it, but I'm hoping it doesn't mean death...

Ormond Beach Fl

We heard the whipoorwhil song for the first time. Wasnt sure what it was, but got a little help identifying it from some helpful neighbors! As i have read, it seems Memorial weekend was a great time to hear it for the first tine....

Just heard our whip-or-will

Just now, outside the open window, I heard his mysterious yet beautiful call. The whip-or-will returned for another year of finding love, filling our home with music and enjoying the Maine woods. It must be the end of May, he is right on schedule.

Just heard our whip-or-will

Just now, outside the open window, I heard his mysterious yet beautiful call. The whip-or-will returned for another year of finding love, filling our home with music and enjoying the Maine woods. It must be the end of May, he is right on schedule.

Just heard our whip-or-will

Just now, outside the open window, I heard his mysterious yet beautiful call. The whip-or-will returned for another year of finding love, filling our home with music and enjoying the Maine woods. It must be the end of May, he is right on schedule.

Just heard our whip-or-will

Just now, outside the open window, I heard his mysterious yet beautiful call. The whip-or-will returned for another year of finding love, filling our home with music and enjoying the Maine woods. It must be the end of May, he is right on schedule.

Whip-poor-will

Heard one last night right outside my window. Startled me and I thought someone's alarm was going off. As I stumbled through the house half-asleep, I eventually realized the sound was coming from outside, and that it must be a bird! I let my dog out, the sound stopped, and back to sleep I went. Then found this website today that helped me figure out what it was.

Wipporwill

Came home got out of van and heard a wipporwill what a beautiful sound

Wipperwill

Heard n seem wipperwill today singing in a dead tree

Whippoorwill

Without a calendar available, I can tell you what time of year it is because mid to late May, the call of the whippoorwill let's me know it's almost memorial day and the end of spring

Whip Poor Wills in the Northwest Georgia Mountains

Listening to their beautiful song outside our kitchen window as I write this comment. We have many here in the rural Northwest Georgia Mountains. Our hobby farm borders the Cohutta Wilderness. We here them at a distance and close to the house. A welcoming song.

Whip-Poor-Wills in Randolph county WV

My husband and I listen to the familiar song of the Whip-Poor-Wills at our home in Huttonsville, WV. In 2014 The DNR had asked for sightings since Whip-Poor-Wills were on a decline in WV. I heard one and emailed them. Now 7 years later we are listening to 2 or 3 everynight. They are such a lovely song to hear. I am so glad they are here.

Whippoorwill

We live in a rural area in South Carolina. For the last few years we've been visited by a Whippoorwill. I love the sound, it reminds me of when I was a kid hearing it. Our dog however, doesn't like the sound much at all. She will be sound asleep inside and will wake up soon as she hears it, and will let out a bark each time the bird makes his sound. So we take her outside on the porch to listen, she still doesn't like it though, haha.

Where's the volume knob??

I don't know if it's the same one but he is around every year. He starts behind the house then slowly makes his way around until he sometimes sits on the roof!!! I live in a heavily wooded area. He sticks around for awhile then is gone, until the next night...

I just want to sleep.

It is incessant! My wife and I fantasize about the whippoorwill finding a mate and flying far, far away. We are already sleep deprived from our four children, but year after year it seems the whippoorwill wants to ensure we are zombies. Please, please make it stop!

Whippoorwill calls

I spent a large part of my childhood on a timber farm in the southeastern part of Virginia between the Tidewater and the Piedmont. No air conditioner in those days, so all summer long the blooming Jasmine vine on the tree by my window perfumed my room, and the whippoorwills on the farm were the music to which I fell asleep. Good times, those summers.

Returning whip-poor-will

After 30 years in my current home I had a whip-poor-will singing in the lilac bushes in front of the house. It has returned now for the 3rd year in a row. Love hearing it. If I go outside I can hear his call circling around the house in different locations while he calls for a mate.

It's been a long time since I've heard 'ALL IS WELL'

I, like Liinda, heard the call of the Whippoorwill at night in my youth here in southern Illinois. I miss that soooo much 'ALL IS WELL'!! I too wish there were a reintroduction.

memory brings me back

Like Judy, as a child I also fell asleep to the whippoorwill's call while "on vacation" at my grandparents' Pelham, NH farm. But I didn't think of it as plaintive at all. So sweet! So reassuring that all was well. As a nod to that wonderful memory and my grandparents, my car license plate is an acronym to the little bird! I wish there were a reintroduction program in progress since they are absent now in many of their old habitats. I haven't heard once since I was a kid. Ring necked pheasants, either. So sad. Thank goodness for memories!

Whippoorwill

Loved this article! As a child, I usually went to sleep listening to the whippoorwill ‘s plaintive call. We didn’t have air conditioning, so we could hear night music easily through open windows. One of my favorite memories is drifting to sleep listening to the whippoorwill and smelling honeysuckle.

Magical

Every year I wait patiently to hear that hauntingly beautiful sound of the whippoorwill. The whippoorwill makes me feel connected to my ancestors past. I consider myself very lucky to hear such a mysterious beauty.

Whippoorwill

I live in the lakes region of NH on Highland Lake. When I married & moved here in 1962 we heard whippoorwills every night. Heard hem for years & loved their evening call. For the past 10 plus years I’ve not heard even one. Why? Where did they do?

Eastern MA

We have lived in the Freetown State Forest in Freetown, MA for over 3 years now, and every late spring into summer, we listen to the local Whippoorwill sing. Sometimes there are more than one calls, but at least one Whipporwill sings each night. I love them so much, my Fiance got me a picture to hang with them on it. I long to see one in person, but since they only come out at night, I've yet to see one. Only hear :)

Whippoorwill

For the third night now I'm awake because of one callin
My grandpa told me they were lucky

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