Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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The Whip-Poor-Will
Nature Bulletin No. 274-A   September 16, 1967
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Richard B. Ogilvie, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation


On a farm, at dusk, there is peace and quiet. You hear contented sounds of the livestock feeding; now and then the drone of an automobile on a highway; maybe the barking of a distant dog. In early summer and sometimes in September in wooded country you also hear the clear melancholy whistles of the whip-poor-wills -- again and again and again. Some years one is heard here in our forest preserves, because these woodlands, are protected from fire and grazing but generally, this night bird avoids thickly-settled regions.

Few people ever see a whip-poor-will. We once saw one when a big white oak was cut to make split rails for a worm fence. She sat, only 10 feet away but unseen because of her dull coloration of mottled browns, grays and black, over two eggs laid, without a nest, upon the fallen leaves of the forest floor. When the tree crashed to the ground, she fluttered away, as if with a broken wing, uttering peculiar guttural cries and angry clucks, and then vanished like a ghost.

Another was a male that squatted down on a bare space just outside our hilltop cabin, one moonlit night in June. He seemed determined to beat the record of the bird which, according to John Burroughs, the famous naturalist, made 1088 consecutive calls and then, after a pause, 390 more. Just preceding each call there was a soft "cluck". Then he threw back his head, moved his tail up and down and, with a bowing motion, pushed out the "whip-poor-will!" At such close range it was so raucous and monotonous that we finally drove him away.

The last was a bird which was discovered one morning in early May, crouching down on an overhanging limb. It rested there all day, lengthwise of the limb and motionless, like a bump on a log, ignoring the goings-on of squirrels, bluejays, crows and people. After sundown it stirred, stretched its wings and flew away.

This Eastern whip-poor-will, about 9-l/2 inches long, is a chunky bird with short legs, small weak feet unsuited for perching, broad wings, a rounded tail, and soft plumage. Its beak is very small but with the enormous mouth, fringed with long stiff bristles, enables it to scoop up - - on the wing -- "June bugs" and other beetles, grasshoppers and large moths, as well as mosquitoes and gnats. Whip-poor-wills apparently rest in daytime, usually on the ground in some dense woodland and feed only from dusk to dawn. Their large "shoebutton"' eyes are typical of nocturnal birds and mammals. They make low short flights in graceful curves, or double and twist in pursuit of the insects which they consume in great quantities.

They winter along the Gulf coast as far south as Central America, and summer from the northern part of our Gulf States to southern Canada, east of the Great Plains. Their spring migration follows the appearance of newly-hatched insects. They nest in late May or early June and then the famous call of the male may be heard from dusk until about 10 p.m. and, again, from 2 a.m. until dawn. To some country folks, this call is an omen of bad luck, but to certain Indian tribes it meant good hunting and good fishing.

In the south he has a large relative which calls "Chuck-Will's widow". In the far west he has a small cousin who cries "Poor Will".

So do we.

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