Wild Profile: Meet the whippoorwill

Published: June 9, 2020

A male whippoorwill perched near the ground By Frode Jacobsen/Shutterstock

The whippoorwill chose its own moniker. Sort of. Like the killdeer and the bobwhite, the whippoorwill was named after the call it makes. Cottagers are most likely to hear the shrill sound over and over again, one whip-poor-will per second, on June nights at the height of breeding season.

Do you know your birdsong? Here’s a cheat sheet.

A male bird will usually call up to 100 times in a row; the record, however, is 1,088 consecutive calls. Females chant too, but it’s quieter and less frequent. Whippoorwills are only noisy at night. During the day, they stay silent, blending in to their surroundings thanks to mottled brown feathers. The robin-sized, ground-nesting birds are so good at disappearing that for a long time they went unnoticed, even in the birding world. Apparently, ornithologists used to attribute their calls to nighthawks (a related species that’s easier to spot).

Whippoorwills have small beaks but large mouths, the better to scoop up night-flying insects, such as moths, while airborne. They have long, bristly hairs around their bills, which experts believe act as nets, to trap bugs. Not only do whippoorwills sing and eat at night, females lay their eggs according to the lunar cycle. This way, the eggs hatch near a full moon. This is so their babies will turn into werewolves. Kidding: it’s so Mom and Dad Whippoorwill have a lot of light, even in the pitch darkness, making feeding the hatchlings easier.

Follow these 7 tips to get your kids interested in birdwatching.

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