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What is a Whip-Poor-Will?

R. Britton
R. Britton

A whip-poor-will is a small nocturnal bird. The scientific name of this species is Caprimulgus vociferous and it is commonly known as a nightjar. It is an insectivore which usually has a large home range. Native to Canada and most of the U.S., the whip-poor-will is not considered endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) but is facing localized threats and endangerment.

The whip-poor-will reaches up to 10 inches (25 centimeters) in length. It has a large head, tiny beak, and very large beak in comparison to the rest of the body. During the evolution of this species, the beak has become very small because it is largely unnecessary while the mouth has undergone a huge increase in size. The whip-poor-will consumes large quantities of nocturnal insects; it is more efficient to scoop multiple insects into its mouth rather than catching individual ones in the beak.

The breeding pattern of a whip-poor-will appears to follow the lunar cycle.
The breeding pattern of a whip-poor-will appears to follow the lunar cycle.

This species is nocturnal, that is, hunting and becoming active from dusk until dawn. It nests in forests or wooded areas on the ground usually in a shallow depression in a sheltered location. The nest is lined with fallen leaves and other plant matter. The breeding pattern appears to follow the lunar cycle, with chicks almost always being born just before a full moon. The mottled brown and black plumage of the bird provides excellent camouflage while in the nest.

The home range of the whip-poor-will usually consists of a variety of terrain that incorporates grasslands, meadows, scrubland, and open woodlands. This species hunts across its home range during the night and returns to its roost at dawn. Prey is captured and eaten while the bird is in flight. This species is native to much of Canada and the U.S. and is the subject of numerous superstitions and folklore. The call of the whip-poor-will is onomatopoeic and has therefore given the bird its common name.

Although listed as a species of least concern by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, it is suffering from localized threats and population decreases. According to the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, for example, the whip-poor-will is considered to be a threatened species across Canada and is protected at a national level. Threats to this species include habitat destruction and egg poaching. Other major risks include the use of insecticide, which greatly reduces the amount of available prey, and cats and dogs attacking nesting adults and juveniles.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a Whip-poor-will and where can it be found?

The Whip-poor-will is a nocturnal bird native to North America, known for its distinctive, repetitive call that sounds like its name. It inhabits deciduous woodlands and forests, often near open areas. During the day, it rests camouflaged on the forest floor or on a branch, emerging at dusk to feed on insects.

Why is the Whip-poor-will's call so well-known?

The Whip-poor-will's call is a haunting and rhythmic sound that carries through the night during its active seasons, typically spring and summer. This bird is crepuscular, meaning it is most active during twilight hours, and its call often marks the transition between day and night, making it a memorable aspect of its natural habitat.

What does the Whip-poor-will eat?

Whip-poor-wills are insectivores, primarily feeding on moths, beetles, and other flying insects. They catch their prey in flight, using their wide mouths to scoop up insects. Their nocturnal feeding habits are supported by their excellent night vision and silent flight, which give them an advantage over their prey.

How does the Whip-poor-will reproduce?

Whip-poor-wills lay their eggs directly on the ground, choosing spots with leaf litter for camouflage. They typically lay two eggs, which both parents incubate. The chicks are precocial, meaning they are relatively mature and mobile shortly after hatching, and they rely on their parents for food and protection until they can fly.

Is the Whip-poor-will endangered?

While not currently listed as endangered, the Whip-poor-will population is experiencing declines due to habitat loss and fragmentation. According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, their numbers have decreased significantly over the past few decades, prompting conservation efforts to preserve their habitats and monitor populations.

How do Whip-poor-wills contribute to their ecosystem?

As nocturnal insectivores, Whip-poor-wills play a crucial role in controlling insect populations, which can benefit agriculture and reduce the spread of insect-borne diseases. Their presence also indicates a healthy, biodiverse ecosystem, as they require specific habitats with a rich supply of insects to thrive.

Discussion Comments


Whip-poor-wills are sweet little birds and I love hearing their song at night. We attended a little country church when I was a child, and we would often hear the whip-poor-will call when we got out of church in the evenings. You could hear the calls coming from the woods and it was a lovely sound.

It still makes me think of being a child.

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    • The breeding pattern of a whip-poor-will appears to follow the lunar cycle.
      By: tomreichner
      The breeding pattern of a whip-poor-will appears to follow the lunar cycle.