Eastern whip-poor-will

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Eastern whip-poor-will
Adult male
Namesake vocalization
Scientific classification Edit this classification
Domain: Eukaryota
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Clade: Strisores
Order: Caprimulgiformes
Family: Caprimulgidae
Genus: Antrostomus
A. vociferus
Binomial name
Antrostomus vociferus
(Wilson, 1812)

Caprimulgus vociferus Wilson, 1812

The eastern whip-poor-will (Antrostomus vociferus; also called "whip-o-will", "whip o' will", etc.) is a medium-sized (22–27 cm (8.7–10.6 in)) bird within the nightjar family, Caprimulgidae, from North America. The whip-poor-will is commonly heard within its range, but less often seen because of its camouflage. It is named onomatopoeically after its song.[2]


Magee Marsh - Ohio (flash photo)

This medium-sized nightjar measures 22–27 cm (8+1210+12 in) in length, spans 45–50 cm (17+1219+12 in) across the wings and weighs 42–69 g (1+122+716 oz).[3] Further standard measurements are a wing chord of 14.7 to 16.9 cm (5+1316 to 6+58 in), a tail of 10.5 to 12.8 cm (4+18 to 5+116 in), a bill of 1 to 1.4 cm (38 to 916 in) and a tarsus of 1.5 to 1.8 cm (916 to 1116 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 loss of early successional forest habitat, habitat destruction, predation by feral cats and dogs, and poisoning by insecticides, but the actual causes remain elusive.[6][7] Even with local populations endangered, the species as a whole is not considered globally threatened due to its large range.[8][9]

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.[10]


A rarely seen eastern whip-poor-will by day in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

In 2017, the eastern whip-poor-will was uplisted from least concern to near threatened on the IUCN Red List, on the basis that based on citizen science observations, populations of the eastern whip-poor-will had declined by over 60% between 1970 and 2014.[11] This decline is likely due to increased forest disturbance and early successional forest habitat, pesticides and intensified agriculture, both of which have led to heavy declines in the flying insect populations that the eastern whip-poor-will depends on, as well as habitat loss. BirdLife International has stated that initiatives like the Conservation Reserve Program will be crucial in conserving the species and reversing its decline.[12][13]

Cultural references[edit]

Due to its song, the eastern whip-poor-will is the topic of numerous legends. A 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.[14] 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 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?"[15]

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: "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."[16]

"The Mountain Whippoorwill" is a poem written by Stephen Vincent Benét 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".[17]

Emily Dickinson wrote "Many a phrase has the English language -/ I have heard but one -/ [...]/ Saying itself in new inflection -/ Like a Whippowil -" (in: J276, 1861 = F333, 1862).

Many a phrase has the English language - I have heard but one - Low as the laughter of the Cricket, Loud, as the Thunder's Tongue - Murmuring, like old Caspian Choirs, When the Tide's a'lull - Saying itself in new inflection - Like a Whippowil -

The chorus of George A. Whiting and Walter Donaldson's song "My Blue Heaven" (1927) begins, "When Whip-poor-wills call and ev'ning is nigh".[18]

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".[19]

Hank Williams's 1949 song I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry refers to the whip-poor-will's sound in its opening line: "Hear that lonesome whippoorwill, he sounds too blue to fly".[20] The chorus of Alan Jackson's 1992 single Midnight in Montgomery makes reference to this lyric: "Just hear that whippoorwill".

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."[21]

The Pennsylvania-based Indie rock band Dr Dog released their song "Lonesome" on their 2012 album Be the Void, featuring the passage "I had my fill of the Whippoorwill / When he broke into song I shot him".[22]

The song, "Cockeyed Optimist", sung by Nellie Forbush in Rodger's and Hammerstein's South Pacific, mentions such bird, singing, "But every whip-poor-will / Is selling me a bill/ And telling me it just ain't so!"[23]

In the novel Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut, the narrator hears the call of a whip-poor-will, which the narrator referred to as a child as "The Nocturnal Goatsucker".[24]

In the fifth episode of the Netflix animated series The Midnight Gospel, titled "Annihilation of Joy", the protagonist encounters a talking bird attached to a prisoner. The bird, voiced by Jason Louv,[25] introduces itself as a "psychopomp or a whippoorwill" and explains the cycle of death and rebirth experienced by its charge, a prisoner caught in an "existential trap".[26][27]

The whip-poor-will is also featured in the last line of the chorus of the song "Deeper Than the Holler", a song written by Paul Overstreet and Don Schlitz, and recorded by American country music singer Randy Travis, where the singer's love is stated to be "longer than the song of a whippoorwill".

The second verse of the song, "My Home Among the Hills", about the state of West Virginia contains the lyrics "Where the moonlit meadows ring with the call of whippoorwills".[28]


  1. ^ BirdLife International. 2018. Antrostomus vociferus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2018: e.T22736393A152619806. Retrieved 19 December 2018.
  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 978-0-19-854987-1.
  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. ^ "Tracking the Mysterious Whip-Poor-Will". WPI. Retrieved 6 March 2019.
  8. ^ BLI (2004)
  9. ^ "Eastern Whip-poor-will Life History, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology". www.allaboutbirds.org. Retrieved 6 March 2019.
  10. ^ 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. S2CID 86363169.
  11. ^ Hooper, Wayne. "Sadly, call of whip-poor-will is being heard less". seacoastonline.com. Retrieved 6 March 2019.
  12. ^ BirdLife International. "Red List: Northern Bald Ibis, Pink Pigeon making a comeback". BirdLife. Retrieved 23 November 2018.
  13. ^ "Are Whip-poor-will populations declining? What can we do about it?". All About Birds. 1 April 2009. Retrieved 6 March 2019.
  14. ^ Encyclopedia of Superstitions, p. 716.
  15. ^ Elizabeth Barrett Browning. "The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point. Lines 55-56".
  16. ^ Faulkner, William. "Barn Burning". rajuabju.com. Archived from the original on 21 May 2011. Retrieved 1 May 2011.
  17. ^ Robert Frost. "A Boy's Will. 2. Ghost House".
  18. ^ Sheet music published by Leo Feist Inc.
  19. ^ "Quotes from "It Happened One Night"" – via www.imdb.com.
  20. ^ ""I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry"". Song Facts. Retrieved 25 September 2020.
  21. ^ "American Certifications - Philadelphia Freedom" Recording Industry of America
  22. ^ "Lyrics containing the term: whippoorwill". www.lyrics.com. Retrieved 6 March 2019.
  23. ^ "That we're done and we might as well be dead".
  24. ^ Vonnegut, Kurt (1976). Slapstick, or Lonesome No More!. New York, N.Y. 10017: Dell Publishing Co., Inc. pp. 105–106. ISBN 0440580099.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location (link)
  25. ^ "The Midnight Gospel - Jason Louv".
  26. ^ ""The Midnight Gospel" Annihilation of Joy (TV Episode 2020) - IMDb". IMDb.
  27. ^ "The Midnight Gospel: Season 1, Episode 5 script | Subs like Script".
  28. ^ "Home Among the Hills". Genius. Retrieved 24 August 2023.

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