Eastern whip-poor-will

"Whippoorwill" redirects here. For other uses, see Whippoorwill (disambiguation).
Eastern whip-poor-will
Adult male
Namesake vocalization
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Subclass: Neornithes
Infraclass: Neognathae
(unranked): Cypselomorphae
Order: Caprimulgiformes
Family: Caprimulgidae
Subfamily: Caprimulginae
Genus: Antrostomus
Species: A. vociferus
Binomial name
Antrostomus vociferus
Wilson, 1812

Caprimulgus vociferus Wilson, 1812

The eastern whip-poor-will (Antrostomus vociferus) is a medium-sized (2227 cm) nightjar from North America. The whip-poor-will is commonly heard within its range, but less often seen because of its superior camouflage. It is named onomatopoeically after its song.[2]


This medium-sized nightjar measures 22–27 cm (8.7–10.6 in) in length, spans 45–50 cm (18–20 in) across the wings and weighs 42–69 g (1.5–2.4 oz).[3] Further standard measurements are a wing chord of 14.7 to 16.9 cm (5.8 to 6.7 in), a tail of 10.5 to 12.8 cm (4.1 to 5.0 in), a bill of 1 to 1.4 cm (0.39 to 0.55 in) and a tarsus of 1.5 to 1.8 cm (0.59 to 0.71 in).[4] Adults have mottled plumage: the upperparts are grey, black and brown; the lower parts are grey and black. They have a very short bill and a black throat. Males have a white patch below the throat and white tips on the outer tail feathers; in the female, these parts are light brown.

This bird is sometimes confused[5] with the related chuck-will's-widow (Antrostomus carolinensis) which has a similar but lower-pitched and slower call.


Eastern whip-poor-wills breed in deciduous or mixed woods across central and southeastern Canada and the eastern United States, and migrate to the southeastern United States and to eastern Mexico and Central America for the winter. These birds forage at night, catching insects in flight, and normally sleep during the day. Eastern whip-poor-wills nest on the ground, in shaded locations among dead leaves, and usually lay two eggs at a time. The bird will commonly remain on the nest unless almost stepped upon.

The eastern whip-poor-will is becoming locally rare. Several reasons for the decline are proposed, such as habitat destruction, predation by feral cats and dogs, and poisoning by insecticides, but the actual causes remain elusive.[6] Even with local populations endangered, the species as a whole is not considered globally threatened due to its large range.[7]

The whip-poor-will has been split into two species. Eastern populations are now referred to as the eastern whip-poor-will. The disjunct population in southwestern United States and Mexico is now referred to as the Mexican whip-poor-will, Antrostomus arizonae. The two populations were split based on range, different vocalizations, different egg coloration, and DNA sequencing showing differentiation.[8]

Cultural references

Due to its haunting, ethereal song, the eastern whip-poor-will is the topic of numerous legends. One New England legend says the whip-poor-will can sense a soul departing, and can capture it as it flees. This is used as a plot device in H. P. Lovecraft's story The Dunwich Horror. Lovecraft based this idea on information of local legends given to him by Edith Miniter of North Wilbraham, Massachusetts when he visited her in 1928. This is likely related to an earlier Native American and general American folk belief that the singing of the birds is a death omen.[9] This is also referred by Whip-poor-will, a short story by James Thurber, in which the constant nighttime singing of a whip-poor-will results in maddening insomnia of the protagonist Mr Kinstrey who eventually loses his mind and kills everyone in his house, including himself. The bird also features, however, in The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point, a poem by the English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, in which the outcast speaker asks: "Could the whip-poor-will or the cat of the glen/Look into my eyes and be bold?"[10]

It is also frequently used as an auditory symbol of rural America, as in Washington Irving's story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, or as a plot device. For example, William Faulkner's short story, "Barn Burning", makes several mentions of whip-poor-wills, e.g.: "and then he found that he had been asleep because he knew it was almost dawn, the night almost over. He could tell that from the whip-poor-wills. They were everywhere now among the dark trees below him, constant and inflectioned and ceaseless, so that, as the instant for giving over to the day birds drew nearer and nearer, there was no interval at all between them."[11]

"The Mountain Whippoorwill" is a poem written by Stephen Vincent Benet about a fiddling contest, won by Hillbilly Jim, who refers to his fiddle as a whip-poor-will and identifies the bird with the lonely and poor but vibrant life of the mountain people. American poet Robert Frost described the sound of a whip-poor-will in the fourth stanza of his 1915 poem "Ghost House". This is notable in Frost's use of assonance, in "The whippoorwill is coming to shout / And hush and cluck and flutter about."[12]

In the 1934 Frank Capra film It Happened One Night, before Clark Gable's character Peter Warne reveals his name to Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert), he famously says to her: "I am the whip-poor-will that cries in the night".[13]

The standard tune "My Blue Heaven", written in 1924 by Walter Donaldson and George A. Whiting, and popularized by a 1928 Gene Austin recording, opens with the words, "When whip-poor-wills call, and evening is nigh, I hurry to my blue heaven."

Hank Williams's 1949 song "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" opens with the lyric, "Hear that lonesome whip-poor-will/He sounds too blue to fly." The swing classic "The Birth of the Blues" contains the line "From a whippoorwill high on a hill they took a new note / pushed it through a horn 'til it was worn into a blue note". The whippoorwill is also referenced in Hank Williams Jr's song "I'm Gonna Get Drunk and Play Hank Williams All Night Long" with the lyrics "Cause the wedding bells will never ring for me/And that whippoorwill ain't got no sympathy". Jim Croce too makes a reference to this bird in his song "I got a name": "Like the whip-poor-will and the baby's cry, I've got a song, I've got a song".

Elton John and Bernie Taupin's 1975 song "Philadelphia Freedom" features a flute mimicking the call of the eastern whip-poor-will and includes the lyrics "I like living easy without family ties, till the whippoorwill of freedom zapped me right between the eyes."[14]

Stephen Sondheim's comedic song "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid", from the 1962 Broadway musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, includes being "winsome as a whippoorwill" in a list of qualities that should be found in a maid.

The popular tune "That Sunday, That Summer", written by Joe Sherman and George David Weiss, and most famously recorded by Nat King Cole in 1963, opens with the words, "If I had to choose just one day to last my whole life through/It would surely be that Sunday; the day that I met you/Newborn whippoorwills were calling from the hills/Summer was a-coming in but fast…"

"Whippoorwill" is a song from Annuals 2013 album "Time Stamp". It makes a mention of the bird with the lines "A cold dead night, after a windswept day the fire burns high. But I’m just listening to the whippoorwills cry. Oh how it carries so fine. I’ll bet it floats miles straight through your window."

Southern rock band Blackberry Smoke released an album in 2012 named "The Whippoorwill".

The whip-poor-will is featured in the lyrics of "By a Waterfall", a musical number from the 1933 film Footlight Parade, directed by Lloyd Bacon with choreography by Busby Berkeley.[15]

Randy Travis references the whip-poor-will in his song Deeper Than the Holler

The Ozark Mountain Daredevils featured a track titled "Whippoorwill" on "The Car Over The Lake" album in 1975


  1. BirdLife International (2013). "Antrostomus vociferus". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. IUCN. 2013: e.T22736393A50469281. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2013-2.RLTS.T22736393A50469281.en.
  2. "Call recording".
  3. "Whip-poor-will". All About Birds.
  4. Holyoak, D.T. (2001). Nightjars and their Allies: the Caprimulgiformes. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-854987-3.
  5. For example, Henninger (1906) combines the old scientific name of C. carolinensis with the common name "whip-poor-will". As C. carolinensis does not occur in the area discussed, he obviously refers to C. vociferus. In other cases, the specific identity of birds may not be determinable.
  6. MWP (2008)
  7. BLI (2004)
  8. Chesser, R. T.; Banks, R. C.; Barker, F. K.; Cicero, C.; Dunn, J. L.; Kratter, A. W.; Lovette, I. J.; Rasmussen, P. C.; Remsen Jr, J. V.; Rising, J. D.; Stotz, D. F.; Winker, K. (2010). "Fifty-first supplement to the American Ornithologists' Union Check-list of North American Birds". Auk. 127 (3): 726–744. doi:10.1525/auk.2010.127.3.726.
  9. Encyclopedia of Superstitions, p. 716.
  10. Elizabeth Barrett Browning. "The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point. Lines 55-56".
  11. Faulkner, William. "Barn Burning". www.rajuabju.com. Retrieved 1 May 2011.
  12. Robert Frost. "A Boy's Will. 2. Ghost House".
  13. IMDb Quotes: It Happened One Night.
  14. "American Certifications - Philadelphia Freedom" Recording Industry of America
  15. Critical Commons link to "By a Waterfall" (1933). Retrieved October 27, 2015.
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