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Image of whip-poor-wills.

Night Music

With haunting song and elusive ways, the whip-poor-will stirs a bird
lover's soul. But populations of eastern whip-poor-will are declining.

by Tom Carpenter

There was a perfectly fine bedroom inside, but Mom and Dad never questioned my desire to sleep out on Grandma's screened porch when we visited. Her house on the edge of town backed up to sandy-riverbottom jack pines with wooded bluffs climbing away to the west.

A young boy on the old couch could snuggle into his flannel-lined sleeping bag, cocooned away from evening's chill, and listen to night come on. As dusk's glow faded over the hills, one of nature's finest concerts commenced: The whip-poor-wills sang.

Whip-poor-will. Whip-poor-will. Whip-poor-will. Whip-poor-will. The chant would last for hours. Some evenings the birds performed allegro, sometimes andante. Had I chronicled the behavior against conditions, maybe I could have figured out a pattern. Or maybe I would have concluded that individual whip-poor-wills just made their own brand of music. (Over 1,000 consecutive whip-poor-will calls from one bird have been documented.)

I am still an ardent fan of Caprimulgus vociferous. Unfortunately, these fascinating members of the nightjar family are facing hard times across their range. Fewer eastern whip-poor-wills are singing in the oak, jack pine, and aspen woods of Minnesota. But not much is known about whip-poor-will populations.

"Because of the bird's nocturnal habits, whip-poor-wills are hard to survey," says Steve Stucker, an ornithologist with the Department of Natural Resources.

According to the Minnesota DNR, the eastern whip-poor-will is listed as a species of greatest conservation need. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists it as a bird of conservation concern in the upper Midwest. Partners in Flight, a broad coalition of conservation agencies and organizations, estimates a 58 percent decline in eastern whip-poor-will populations across their range since the mid-1960s.

Cryptic Creature.

Whip-poor-wills need forest for hiding and nesting. They spend daytime on the forest floor, camouflaged perfectly in mottled plumage of grays, browns, blacks, and whites. Males and females look alike, except that the male sports white tips on his outermost three tailfeathers and a white necklace on his throat.

Across their breeding range, which encompasses the eastern half of the United States and southern Canada, eastern whip-poor-wills prefer oak forests with open understory. There, this jay-sized bird with an 18-inch wingspan blends into the leafy woodland floor but has room to fly away if a predator approaches. When perching, as it sometimes does while hunting, a whip-poor-will reduces its silhouette by orienting its body along (not across) a branch.

For hunting insects, whip-poor-wills require nearby open areas, such as meadows, pastures, clearings, and fields. "In southeastern Minnesota, whip-poor-wills like goat-prairie areas, those open, south-facing slopes that feature a mix of oaks and red cedar," says Stucker. "In central and northern Minnesota, they make good use of jack pines. You'll find whip-poor-wills in the oak savannas and aspen parklands of the far northwest too."

Night Hunter, Secretive Nester.

The whip-poor-will usually hunts on the wing. Its wide, pointed bill opens to a gaping maw to gather insects, primarily moths, beetles, and mosquitoes. It also perches on small branches and flutters out to snatch passing bugs, a behavior known as sallying.

A rounded tail (similar to a ruffed grouse's but narrower) provides for precise steering and maximum maneuverability. Long, pointed wings contribute raw power and instant acceleration. Under cover of darkness, the whip-poor-will puts on an aerial show of wheeling, winging, dipping, diving, swerving, banking, about-facing, chasing, circling, rolling, and hovering. You can witness this spectacle on a moonlit or starry-clear night.

Whip-poor-wills don't build nests. The female lays just two splotched, cream-colored eggs on fallen leaves right on the forest floor, close to the forest edge, where foraging for insects is good. The chicks blend in well on the mottled, sun-dappled forest floor. The female will separate the hatchlings by a few feet when she isn't brooding them, the better to save one chick if a predator moves in. Both male and female take care of the young, making hunting trips and bringing back bug porridge (a regurgitated but nutritious insect mash).

In a feat of lunar programming, whip-poor-wills time their hatch to occur about 10 days before a full moon. This assures better light for nighttime insect hunting when the chicks are at their hungriest. In dark-moon situations, the whip-poor-will is more crepuscular, feeding on either edge of night and day.

Population Declines.

Whip-poor-will declines are so alarming in the northeastern United States that Audubon Society chapters in Massachusetts and New Hampshire have initiated whip-poor-will count projects. Volunteers stop at roadside intervals to listen for singing birds. While whip-poor-will declines are not yet as steep in Minnesota, many longtime bird enthusiasts here anecdotally note a reduction in singing and bird numbers.

More study is needed, but theories about the whip-poor-will's decline focus on lack of suitable habitat. Forest succession may be degrading whip-poor-will habitat. These birds prefer timber that's not too mature or too young, not too open or too closed in. Across the whip-poor-will's range, including Minnesota, oaks are being shaded out as maple and basswood forest takes over. Jack pine stands are aging and opening up. Urban and suburban development is also eating up whip-poor-will woods.

Predators such as skunks, raccoons, opossums, and feral cats may be decimating whip-poor-wills' ground nests. This might be another symptom of habitat degradation, as most species can withstand predation in good habitat.

Serenades.

These days, without Grandma and her porch, I get my whip-poor-will fix while scouting a turkey gobbler the evening before a springtime hunt or standing hip-deep in a trout stream on the cusp of night. Sometimes I'll even just take a drive, park along a back road where jack pines or oaks meet meadow or pasture, sit on the hood, and listen.

But I still remember those nights on Grandma's porch. Whip-poor-wills sang me to sleep, and their songs filled my dreams. Or perhaps it was the birds themselves singing all night, until that gray window before dawn, when I would awaken briefly to hear their calls for real again.

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