The World of the Eastern Whip-poor-will

This bird has been made famous in poems, folk songs, and literature due to its endless chanting talents on summer nights. It’s sort of like providing a romantic interlude. The Eastern Whip-poor-wills are really easy to hear but are difficult to see. They have a brindled plumage that blends in well with gray-brown leaf litter in the open forests where they make their home and breed and roost. The come out from perches at dawn and dusk and on moonlit nights to gather up insects in their cavernous mouths. Unfortunately, these once common birds are on the decline in parts of their range due to the fact that open forests are being converted into suburbs or agriculture.

Recognizing Them

Eastern Whip-poor-wills are medium-sized birds with large, rounded heads. They have stout chests ending in a long tail and wings. This gives them a sort of front-heavy look.


These birds have a patterned plumage with a mottling of gray and brown. This gives them a sort of camouflage and they can blend in with leaf litter or tree bark. Eastern whip-poor-wills have a blackish throat ending in a nice, white bib. Male birds have white corners to the tail and on female birds these spots are dull buff.


Strictly nocturnal Eastern Whip-poor-wills rest on the ground or perch horizontally on low threes so that they can catch moths and other flying insects. They chant their interesting whip-poor-will song all through the spring and on summer evenings.

During the daytime they roost on the ground or on tree limbs but are hard to spot.


Eastern Whip-poor-wills can be found in eastern forests. These birds make their home in both deciduous and mixed deciduous pine forests in spaces with sandy soil.

Singing Their Song

Basically Eastern Whip-poor-wills are not considered to be songbirds but their whip-poor-will call does function as a song. Male birds repeat this call from conspicuous perches during the breeding season. Its chant can go on for hours at a time and is a typical sound on warm summer nights in the country in the East. The chant has been written about in regional songs and literature. The typical call of the Eastern Whip-poor-will puts an accent on the first and last syllable making the middle syllable tremulous afterwards right away starting in on the next call. In this way the birds create a circular kind of rhythm. Both males and females emit a short, sharp quirt to contact their mates or to express agitation if a predator comes near the nest. They’ll make growls to back off territorial intruders and hisses to back off predators. There are times when the Eastern Whip-poor-will will clap its wings to warn intruders to stay away from its territory.

Amazing Facts

  • These birds lay their eggs in phase with the lunar cycle, hatching on average ten days before a full moon. When the moon is almost full adult birds will forage all night in order to capture large quantities of insects to fee their nestlings.
  • Their chicks move around as nestlings making it hard for predators to rob the nest. If the parent comes to help it may shove a nestling aside with its foot making the young chick tumble head over heels.
  • Hovering in place near the nest the male Eastern Whip-poor-will investigates intruders by holding his body nearly vertical and spreading its tail wide, showing off the broad white tip of the tail feathers.
  • At one time the Eastern and Mexican Whip-Poor-Wills were considered one species and just called Whip-Poor-Wills. However in 2011 they were divided into two species based on differences in mitochondrial and nuclear DNA. Eastern Whip-Poor-Wills emit faster and higher pitched whip-poor-will calls and have more colorful eggs than the Mexican birds.
  • It is amazing that the Eastern Whip-Poor-Will can locate bugs by seeing their silhouettes against the sky. This bird’s eyes have a reflective structure behind the retina that is most likely an adaptation to low light conditions.
  • The oldest recorded Eastern Whip-poor-will was 4 years old.

Eastern Whip-poor-will Menu

Eastern Whip-poor-wills have a menu which consists exclusively of insects such as moths, scarab beetles, click beetles, and grasshoppers among other insects. Thirty minutes after the sun has set and until it gets too dark to see their prey the birds forage. At first light they continue to feed and stop around 40 minutes before sunrise. If the moon is bright enough they’ll hunt all through the night. They won’t attempt to forage during cold, rainy weather.

Eastern Whip-poor-wills perch in trees or at times on the ground and then make short sallies to catch insects up to 15 feet off the ground or they might take flight on longer insect-catching flights. They have enormous mouth that lets them swallow insects up to two inches long. At times they’ll search through rotten logs and leaves for ants, caterpillars, beetles, worms and other insects.

Author: Rasma Raisters

I am a poet and writer. I dream big and enjoy life.

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