What is a Whip-Poor-Will?

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  • Written By: R. Britton
  • Edited By: R. Halprin
  • Last Modified Date: 03 November 2019
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A whip-poor-will is a small nocturnal bird. The scientific name of this species is Caprimulgus vociferous and it is commonly known as a nightjar. It is an insectivore which usually has a large home range. Native to Canada and most of the U.S., the whip-poor-will is not considered endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) but is facing localized threats and endangerment.

The whip-poor-will reaches up to 10 inches (25 centimeters) in length. It has a large head, tiny beak, and very large beak in comparison to the rest of the body. During the evolution of this species, the beak has become very small because it is largely unnecessary while the mouth has undergone a huge increase in size. The whip-poor-will consumes large quantities of nocturnal insects; it is more efficient to scoop multiple insects into its mouth rather than catching individual ones in the beak.

This species is nocturnal, that is, hunting and becoming active from dusk until dawn. It nests in forests or wooded areas on the ground usually in a shallow depression in a sheltered location. The nest is lined with fallen leaves and other plant matter. The breeding pattern appears to follow the lunar cycle, with chicks almost always being born just before a full moon. The mottled brown and black plumage of the bird provides excellent camouflage while in the nest.


The home range of the whip-poor-will usually consists of a variety of terrain that incorporates grasslands, meadows, scrubland, and open woodlands. This species hunts across its home range during the night and returns to its roost at dawn. Prey is captured and eaten while the bird is in flight. This species is native to much of Canada and the U.S. and is the subject of numerous superstitions and folklore. The call of the whip-poor-will is onomatopoeic and has therefore given the bird its common name.

Although listed as a species of least concern by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, it is suffering from localized threats and population decreases. According to the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, for example, the whip-poor-will is considered to be a threatened species across Canada and is protected at a national level. Threats to this species include habitat destruction and egg poaching. Other major risks include the use of insecticide, which greatly reduces the amount of available prey, and cats and dogs attacking nesting adults and juveniles.


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Post 1

Whip-poor-wills are sweet little birds and I love hearing their song at night. We attended a little country church when I was a child, and we would often hear the whip-poor-will call when we got out of church in the evenings. You could hear the calls coming from the woods and it was a lovely sound.

It still makes me think of being a child.

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