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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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

Book

I have a book "HAS the Whippoorwill Cried" by Wilson Greenlaw. Very interesting.

Whippoorwill

I heard a whippoorwill calling the other night. Haven't heard one in several years until the other night. Love to hear their call!

Whippoorwill

All is well when the whippoorwills call. Every Spring in NC, I anticipate the return of the whippoorwills as if waiting for an old friend. This year, the first vocal one arrived on April 8, then a few more joined him the following week. Predictably at dusk, a boisterous male picks the same fence post to sing on as he did years before, then he moves to the stones of the fire pit. He joins a silent female & serenades her with a gah, gah, gah. They flit & fly away & return most nights. The moon is now full, and I hope they have successfully produced their first batch of eggs on the forest floor. I pray their numbers stop declining so their song will always be heard.

N.C- Longest Whippoorwill Song I've Heard

I've heard whippoorwills many times over the years. But tonight has to be the most clear I've ever heard one sing. I could hear it from inside my house as I lay in bed attempting to fall asleep. I went outside to hear it more clearly. It has been singing for over an hour now. Maybe it has something to do with the moon being full (pink moon) and how perfect the weather has been over the past few days. My grandmother always said it was a bad omen and never attempt to sing the song back at one. I never have and don't think I would even if it wasn't an old wives tale.

Pink Moon Whippoorwill Trio

I went outside to see the pink moon rising over the pine trees and heard a magical chorus of a trio of Whippoorwills echoing across the field to one another. It was breathtakingly beautiful.

whippoorwills

The Editors's picture

Thanks for sharing this. What a gorgeous image you paint – of the pink moon and the whippoorwills.

Whippoorwill calls near my yard

I sit on my porch in rural KY and listen to the Whippoorwills every evening and early morning....my most favorite bird to hear sing.

It's not spring until the whippoorwill comes back

I moved to a secluded ranch deep in the forests of The Ozark Mountains in 2010 and was absolutely thrilled to have a resident whippoorwill! He returns every year mid-April and I always pause my evening chores to soak in his song. Thoreau penned it beautifully. I also have a screech owl whose call resembles a horse whinnying.

WHIPPOORWILL

Chances are that if a man can turn somersaults his back isn't aching all that much. LOL!

Whippoorwill

Just came in from taking my doggy out, 11:45pm, and heard a whippoorwill. First one in a long time.

Whippoorwill

I have heard them many times in my life, always singing more than once in tandem. We recently moved to Florida where our house is next to an animal preserve. I think the one we hear sometimes is a young one; song is very clear, and just young sounding. Looking for a mate, I suppose.

whippoorwill

I went out side this morning to take my dog out and I heard the whippoorwill I told Molly that was a whippoorwill. Love the sound

Whippoorwill

I've often heard the sounds of Whippoorwills in the distance. While driving, or lying in bed. I grew up in the country so it was a regular sound I heard,only I didn't know what kind of animal was making that sound, nor did I realize it was a bird. Lately I have been hearing the sound of a whipoorwill every morning. It seems as though it's very close by. I never knew it was a sign of death. I lost a son 2 years ago, and have since seen the Red Robin meant to be a good spiritual sign. I'm not sure if I believe in all that, but it's interesting to know the mystery and , myths of old wives tales. I've always enjoyed the sound of a whipoorwill in the early mornings of summer, before the dew has lifted.

Whippoor will

I just moved into a new house and I heard a whiperpoor will my boyfriend told me what is was so tonight we went out back and I heard the whipper will so I went in and grabbed my phone and looked it up and seen it meant death and played the sound I told my bf I hope nothing happens as I walk back in house my little dog wasnt going to come out but did so my big dog came in and my little dog didnt I heard my bf calling her and then he heard a loud screech from a car slamming on the brakes a thump and my dog holler we ran out she had gotten under the gate we live on 4 acres and got hit she made it back in had a seizure I live out in the middle if nowhere so no vets open now she seems to be doing better I hope shes ok I'm still shaking I dont want the whippoor will around here

When whippoorwill calls

I had never heard the call of the whippoorwill before last Friday night (26 March, 2021), but my dog was raising the lower reaches of Purgatory barking in my back yard. I went out and heard the bird call - I was surprised how complex it sounded with a rolling sound to the second syllable compared to the three-syllable name - in the next-door neighbor's back yard. The neighbor asked me if I knew what kind of bird it was, and I replied that I thought it was a whippoorwill. Her husband looked it up and played the call back in his speaker phone. A moment later, the bird went quiet and my dog came up to the back porch and into the house.

Whipporwills

On Monday 03/ 22/2021 morning about 6:15 AM I was sewing and heard the whipporwill. That night I heard the call in my bedroom. I've heard him three nights in a row. We had a big storm this evening so he isn't out there tonight. We have one that sings every night under our bedroom window in the summer time. Haven't heard one this early in the year before.

whippoorwills

When I was five or six years old, whippoorwills used to call at night from right outside my bedroom window. The window went from the ceiling to the mopboard and didn't have curtains. I was so scared I huddled in a ball buried way under the blankets with my back to the window. My Dad told me they were harmless little birds, but hearing them, I could only picture them as huge birds with red glowing eyes and long bills with big fangs! I'm 65 now and know better, but their song still kind of gives me the creeps.

Whippoorwill Called Her Home

I was about 11 when I first heard the call. Had started some time, I'd say about a week, before Christmas. My mom was afraid it meant death and we would try to scare it away from our home. He called and called and called and no matter what we did, he wouldn't leave. Christmas day he landed on the eve of the house above my mother's bedroom. We shooed him away and didn't hear his call the rest of the evening. Early the next day I woke to the sound of my grandfather's wife driving up our driveway. She had come to tell my mother that her mother had passed overnight.
To this day, I've never heard his call again.
And I don't want to, either.

Whip poor Will

I enjoyed the comments from so many folk all over the country. I am over 90 years old and haven't heard a Whip Poor Will for about 75 years, but I remember their haunting call in southwest Virginia and still mimic them on occasion. I have a friend who likes to whistle the Bob White call and I respond with the Whip Poor Will call. I never had one that disturbed my sleep, as some of the other commenters have, so I look back with nostalgia, at the call of the Whip Poor Will.

Whippoorwill, add on

I'd like to add that I'm 60 years old....ummm, young....now. That means that the whippoorwills have been returning to the area for at least 60 years.

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