The Whip-poor-will or whippoorwill, Caprimulgus vociferus, is a medium-sized (22-27 cm) nightjar from North and Central America. The Whip-poor-will is commonly heard within its range, but less often seen. It is named onomatopoeically after its call.
This bird is sometimes confused with the related Chuck-will's-widow (Caprimulgus carolinensis) which has a similar but lower-pitched and slower call.
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.
The Whip-poor-will's breeding habitat is deciduous or mixed woods across southeastern Canada, eastern and southwestern United States, and Central America. Northern birds migrate to the southeastern United States and south to Central America. Central American races are largely resident. These birds forage at night, catching insects in flight, and normally sleep during the day. 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 Whip-poor-will is becoming locally rare. Larry Penny has recorded a 97% decline since 1983 in New York state . Several reasons for the decline are proposed, like habitat destruction, predation by feral cats and dogs, and poisoning by insecticides, but the actual causes remain elusive. Still, the species as a whole is not considered globally threatened due to its huge range.
In human culture
In 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.
Due to the haunting, ethereal song, the Whip-poor-will is among the most frequently evoked symbols of the rural USA. It is mentioned in popular culture including works such as:
- It Happened One Night starring Clark Gable
- Mystery Men contained the cry of the bird near the end, though it was only being imitated by a character.
- Rio Bravo
- "The Littlest Birds" by The Be Good Tanyas
- "Alone and Forsaken" by Hank Williams
- "As Above, So Below" by the Klaxons
- "Away Out on the Mountain" by Jimmie Rodgers
- "Back Where I Belong" by Darryl Worley
- "Blue Valley Songbird" by Dolly Parton
- "Birth of the Blues" by Frank Sinatra
- "A Cockeyed Optimist" from South Pacific
- "Cry of the Whippoorwill" by Rhonda Vincent
- "Daniel and The Sacred Harp" by The Band
- "Deeper Than the Holler" by Randy Travis
- "Does That Wind Still Blow in Oklahoma?" by Reba McEntire and Ronnie Dunn
- "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid" from the musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
- "Gus: The Polar Bear from Central Park" by The Tragically Hip
- "Hotter Than Mojave In My Heart" by Iris DeMent
- "If the World Had a Front Porch" by Tracy Lawrence
- "I Got a Name" by Jim Croce
- "I'll Tell the Man in the Street" from the musical "I Married an Angel"
- "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" by Hank Williams
- "Magnolia" by J J Cale
- "Midnight in Montgomery" by Alan Jackson
- "Nothing But a Whippoorwill" by Blue Highway
- "My Blue Heaven" recorded by Fats Domino, Smashing Pumpkins and others
- "Philadelphia Freedom" by Elton John
- "Sad Song" by Cat Power
- "Sad, Sad Song" by M Ward
- "Songs About Texas" by Pat Green
- "So Says the Whippoorwill" by Richard Shindell
- "Speed of the Whippoorwill" by Chatham County Line
- "Tammy" recorded by Debbie Reynolds and others
- "That Sunday, That Summer" recorded by Nat King Cole and others
- Title track of the album The Stage Names by Okkervil River
- "The First Whippoorwill" by Bill Monroe
- "The Whippoorwill" by Keely Smith
- "That's Entrainment" by Van Morrison
- "Where The Whipoorwill [sic] Is Whispering Goodnight" by Charlie Poole
- "Whippoorwill" by Doug Burr
- "Whippoorwill" by Ozark Mountain Daredevils
- "Whip-Poor-Will" by Magnolia Electric Co.
- "Sounds So Good" by Ashton Shepherd
- "Sunday in the South" by Shenandoah
- Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy
- Pet Sematary by Stephen King
- The Dunwich Horror by H. P. Lovecraft
- The House of the Solitary Maggot by James Purdy
- The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving
- Underground to Canada by Barbara Smucker
- Walden by Henry David Thoreau