Whip-poor-will

Often heard but seldom seen, this enigmatic insectivore has undergone a rapid population drop across Canada. Researchers are now turning to new survey methods to help save a poorly understood species.

By Tim Tiner

 

The whip-poor-will’s loud, ringing call – a fabled, disembodied “voice in the night woods” (in the words of naturalist Roger Tory Peterson) – is, unfortunately, receding into memory across much of Ontario. The plight of this nocturnal spectre, rarely seen even in the days when it was commonly heard, is finally garnering attention, but researchers face a formidable challenge in reversing the species’ decline.

Evocatively named for its rapidly repeated, three-syllable song, the whip-poor-will inhabits dry, patchy, semi-open forests, often of scattered pine, oak and juniper. The birds seldom stir during the day, and their darkly mottled, greybrown plumage blends so well with the needle and leaf litter or branches on which they perch that they are nearly invisible. They take wing only at dawn and dusk – starting about half an hour after sunset – or in bright moonlight. Unlike their high-flying nighthawk relatives, whip-poorwills forage like flycatchers, darting from favourite perches over clearings to snatch large moths, beetles and other airborne insects. Humans so seldom witness these twilight sorties that the echoing calls of the male whip-poor-will, sometimes belted out dozens or even hundreds of times in succession, were once ascribed to nighthawks.

Since the mid-1900s, however, the cries of these vociferous insectivores have become increasingly rare throughout much of their range in eastern North America. The North American Breeding Bird Survey notes that in Canada, where whip-poor-wills nest from Nova Scotia to Saskatchewan, the population of this species declined by 75 percent between 1968 and 2007. Over the past decade, researchers compiling the Atlas of Breeding Birds of Ontario recorded this bird in fewer than half the areas in which it had been found when the previous atlas was compiled 25 years ago.

Although once found as far north as Sudbury, the robin-sized, tiny-beaked birds are now concentrated mainly along the southern edge of the Canadian Shield, Georgian Bay’s rocky shores and the Bruce Peninsula, in eastern Ontario’s Rideau Lakes area and on the Oak Ridges Moraine. Farther south, these birds are holding out largely in protected havens at Long Point, Rondeau and The Pinery, and at the St. Williams Conservation Reserve in Norfolk County. Conservation biologists estimate the Ontario population at about 30,000 birds.

In April 2009, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada recommended that the whip-poor-will be designated federally as a threatened species. While Ottawa’s decision is still pending, the Ontario government listed the bird as threatened last September. The provincial Endangered Species Act (ESA) requires that a government-steered team design a recovery strategy by September 2011. That is a tall order, given how little is known about this enigmatic bird and the reasons for its increasing rarity, says Glenn Desy, a species-at-risk biologist with Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR). “The whip-poor-will has gone from having no [risk] status in September 2009 to being threatened, so it’s a pretty fast transition,” says Desy, who is charged with investigating the bird’s habitat requirements, which must be protected under the ESA.

Desy’s task is complicated by the bird’s distinctive ecology. For instance, MNR usually focuses on identifying nest sites to define a species’ habitat needs, but the whip-poor-will does not make a nest, instead laying its eggs directly on the ground, and very few of the speckled, camouflaged clutches are ever found.

Habitat loss and degradation is suspected to be the biggest factor driving the whip-poor-will’s decline. In southern Ontario, intensification of farming has reduced pasture and hedgerows. Farther north, maturing forests and fire suppression efforts seem to be eliminating the scrubby terrain the birds favour.

New survey methods recently developed by the National Audubon Society in the United States, however, offer some hope of gaining a better understanding of the species and its needs. Once a year, volunteers in about 25 states make stops every mile along nine-mile roadside routes to listen for six minutes and record every whip-poor-will they hear. The surveys are conducted at the peak of the breeding season, on clear nights when the moon is up, within a week before or after the full moon in late May or June. In the 1980s, research by Ontario ornithologist Alex Mills determined that whip-poor-wills usually lay their eggs during the peak of this lunar cycle so that they will hatch about 10 days before the following full moon. This maximizes the number of moonlight hours the birds have to forage for food for their new nestlings.

Last spring, Birds Studies Canada tested the U.S.-designed survey method on 10 routes along concession roads through the Norfolk Forest Complex Important Bird Area, northwest of Long Point. The effort found some solo birds, as well as a couple of clusters of whip-poor-wills. At one site, 11 birds were calling. The organization’s Ontario programs manager, Debbie Badzinski, hopes to expand the surveys this year to about 50 routes now covered by the Ontario Nocturnal Owl Survey in central Ontario, provided that MNR kicks in funding. “We need to identify which regions support the largest concentrations in order to direct conservation efforts,” she says.

Profile

Length: 22–26 cm

Wingspan: 41–49 cm

Weight: 43–64 g

Breeding territory: 3–11 ha

Clutch: 2 eggs (second clutches are common in the United States and known in Ontario)

Mouth: Extending beyond deceptively tiny beaks back past eyes and held agape while foraging; whisker-like bristles ringing beak help net prey

Scientists hope that this new information will be used to inform forest management measures to help maintain or create whip-poor-will habitat, says Desy. Controlled burns are already being used in New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania to restore habitats for various species, including whip-poor-wills.

Factors beyond habitat loss may also be playing a role in the decline of this species. Reduced insect prey, due to both use of pesticides and shifts in hatching times caused by climate change, could be contributing to the bird’s dwindling numbers, say researchers, as could encroaching development and the increasing number of vehicles on roads. The problem could also originate in the whip-poor-will’s wintering grounds, which stretch from the Gulf states to Honduras,says Pamela Hunt, a conservation biologist with New Hampshire Audubon who initiated whip-poor-will surveys in the United States in 2003. “We don’t really know much about what these birds do there,” she notes.

The challenge of getting to the heart of the whip-poor-will’s decline is mind-boggling, says Hunt. Coming up with a solution to stabilize the population will be just as challenging. “We don’t know [the solution] yet, so we’re sort of circling the wagons to find out.”


contribs_tinerTim Tiner is a long-time contributor to ON Nature and coauthor of the revised and expanded nature guide, The Complete Up North, published this spring.

26 Comments

  1. Mary Neil Mary Neil
    January 16, 2011    

    Hello I have a concern about our whip poor wills and I would like to help in a count this summer 2011. I live in north west Ont right at Lake of The Woods Near the MINN border .I used to hear them now and then but not for years now. I would like to know if there are any planns to do a count this summer
    I have done the christmas bird count form years This birds song is part of child hood memorys I miss it and would like to do somthing to help in the research Can you let me know were I may contact some one who might be doing a count of our poor whip poor wills sincerely Mary Neil

  2. geza Teleki geza Teleki
    August 9, 2011    

    I have lived in the eastern end of the Oak Ridges Moraine since 1953, own 150 acres of scrub and forest along a stream and the whip-poor-will has been an iconic summery bird song for the past 57 years. This year for the first time it has not sung!! I am devastated and do not know what to do. I have not changed the habitat in all these years. Beavers have come and gone along our stream, and canopy has opened and closed up again–but that is all. WE have plenty of insects, moths and such. Any suggestions?

  3. April 2, 2012    

    In Port Perry, ON we have heard whip-poor-wills frequently. The area is surrounded by farmland and forest on the Greenbelt and Oak Ridges Moraine. Unfortunately SkyPower has chosen this area for a massive solar plant. There is going to be a perimeter fence and 24hr security lights. I’m concerned for these lovely birds. Will the lights affect the eating habits, mating and or production? Does anyone know any studies on this?

  4. Austin Sheridan Austin Sheridan
    May 21, 2012    

    It is sad that this specie is becoming rare, I live in sudbury ontario and every night before bed i hear it song. For a few years it disapeard but now it is back once again. The other night while looking out my screen door, it was sitting on our van singing its song. I hope that this means it is once again growing in numbers. if possible, could anyone tell me how I could make the yard arround my house a better enviroment for the whip-poor-will.

  5. Sam Wyss Sam Wyss
    May 30, 2012    

    We have recently moved to our new home near Terra Nova Ont. I had noticed the sound of a Whip Poor Will in the evenings while our house was being built last year. Now that we have moved here two birds are entertaining us every evening and early mornings. At least one of them isn’t very shy, I have observed him or her flying and at times resting very close to our house.

  6. Michael Portelance Michael Portelance
    May 31, 2012    

    I also live in Sudbury and I so I was surprised to read that they used to venture this far North. I swear I must have the bulk of of those that tested their northern limits. They seem pretty comfortable in the bush behind my home. From what I can tell there are many and not the slightest bit shy about letting us all know they are around. Good news about their voracious appetite for insects. I will do my best to keep them happy.

  7. Sam Wyss Sam Wyss
    June 22, 2012    

    Does anyone know how long in the season these birds will be active with their nightly song and when they will be migrating south and then north again after the winter?

  8. Tiffany Tiffany
    September 9, 2012    

    I have lived in the Ompah Ont area my whole life and we used to hear the whip-poor-will every night. now we do not hear it all. I think one of the reasons there has been a decline in the population is because the ministry has introduced turkeys, these birds eat everything and because the whip-poor-will lays its eggs on the ground they have a very small chance of survival. the turkeys are thriving but many other species are suffering. the killdear have also declined drastically over the years. there are other factors I’m sure but the turkeys are definetly a problem.

  9. Brenda Reid Brenda Reid
    June 1, 2013    

    We also live in sudbury and are delighted to find that one of these rare birds seems to have chosen a fir tree outside our window as it’s nightly rest spot. Must be the abundance of blackflies, we have more than our share!

  10. Sue Mueller Sue Mueller
    June 13, 2013    

    My husband Rick and I live in Wisconsin. We are very sad that we no longer hear whip-poor-wills. We have camped in areas where they once were heard. Sadly we haven’t heard them. We continue to hope to once again enjoy the sound of the whip-poor-wills.
    Please send any information on the whip-poor-will available.

  11. thomas thomas
    September 19, 2013    

    I’m in Grimsby,Ontario & hear these birds lately at night in case you wanted to know……Sept18/13

  12. Steve Steve
    January 7, 2014    

    The biggest issue these birds face may actually be from stray cats. Their ground-dwelling habits make them easy prey. When I was a child, Whippoorwills covered all of central Wisconsin. That same area has been overrun by stray cats/barn cats/feral cats and the birds can no longer be heard.

  13. November 11, 2014    

    Pretty! This wass aan incredibly wonderful article. Many thanks
    for supplying this info.

  14. Luther Bliss Luther Bliss
    January 18, 2015    

    I’m surprised to hear they are uncommon. I live in Whitefish ONT, about an hour drive south-west of Sudbury and I have often heard the whipoorwill’s eponymous call on summer nights.

    The bird has a sinister reputation in many mythologies with its ghostly nocturnal habits and disturbing engulfing maw. Its cry brought illness, misfortune or death. Algonquin tribes associated it with the war-cry of the Iroquois.

    For good or ill, Sudbury seems to be home to many of this birds.

  15. R.Powell R.Powell
    March 10, 2015    

    I live in the foothills of NC. We haven’t heard a Whippoorwill in many years now & miss them. Are they now extinct in this area?

  16. Joe Joe
    May 2, 2015    

    2 may2015
    Heard what I believed is a WW short call. Was as 2pm and have heard it recently this spring. Not sure if daytime call is normal.

    Location is Holland Landing/ east branch of holland river (Sand Rd. area)
    Where much of the natural brush and treed lands have been stripped in preparation for 30,000 more people. Holland Landing secondary plan, Sharon Village and Queensville are near sensatuve wetlands and was habitable greenspace- all soon to be lost – perhaps this disturbance has flushed out the WW I am hearing for e first time in this residential area that boarder the river/forest.

    Joe

  17. tish minke tish minke
    May 4, 2015    

    For the first time in his life, my husband heard a whippoorwill! We live in south central Ontario (north west of Toronto) and I had not heard one since I lived in the north. Used to hear them EVERY night and love their sound. Like so many other aspects of nature, we seem to be losing them also. Pity!
    Thank you

  18. Mary Mary
    May 25, 2015    

    I live north of Brockville on 42 acres. Have been serenaded by the sound of at least one Whipoorwill the last number of years. This year the bird has come right to the back step. Several nights in a row it has called out right under the window at around 9:30 pm. It also has started the habit of landing on the roof directly ouside our bedroom window at 4:30 am waking me up. Would really like it to return to the bush…not a big fan of the abrupt morning wakeup call

  19. Kelly Kelly
    May 27, 2015    

    We have been living at this house in Mckerrow Ontario for three years. We have heard the whip poor will in the spring /summer months every evening around 10 pm and our wake up call at 5 am. We live in a wooded area with a small pond/ lake out front. I haven’t seen one yet but we sure can hear them.

  20. Leslie Wood Leslie Wood
    June 6, 2015    

    I would love to help in the recovery of these birds if there is anything we can do – I live on a lake north of Kingston Ontario and we have whippowhills every year but there numbers are dwindling for sure – please email me if we can help – I belong to a lake association and we help out species at risk every year

  21. Mary Hamer Mary Hamer
    May 16, 2016    

    We have a Whip-poor-will that comes back every year and tonight I heard him start his call. he will call past mid-night what seems like almost frantic.. I don’t hear an answer.. I wish I could find him a mate. We are located in the Loess Hills of Iowa, not anywhere close to the east coast. Is he lost or do we have a population of them in our area. There is quite a bit of ground area that is not disturbed around us, but there are farm cats, and we actually have 2. Now that I know that they nest on the ground, I’m concerned about our 2 farm cats. Is there anything we can do to help him?

  22. May 16, 2016    

    Hello Mary,

    We understand the need to help control rodents around farms with farm cats, in general and when possible, Ontario Nature encourages cat owners to keep cats indoors. Cats are the number one killers of birds across the United States and Canada. You could report your sighting to ebird and your local conservation authority to ensure the observation has been reported. The laws for species at risk are different in Iowa than in Ontario. ON Nature published important information about bird fatalities in our Winter 2013 issue.

    http://www.vdocshop.com/doc/on-nature-magazine/winter-2013-14/2013120201/#38

    Kind regards and many thanks for writing,

    ON Noah

  23. Donna Donna
    June 4, 2016    

    We are in Sudbury, Ontario and have our lovely whippoorwill in our backyard yard every night around 10 pm and he starts up again at 4:30am this has been going on for a few years now. Have never seen him and have only ever heard the one going on and on and on!!!!

  24. Terri Sampson Terri Sampson
    June 24, 2016    

    I live in the far northern community of Kirkland Lake ontario and we’ve had a whipperwill singing away for the last week or 2! I’ve never heard this around here before!

  25. JUNE HUCHINGSON JUNE HUCHINGSON
    November 19, 2016    

    I HAVE A FARMHOUSE IN THE BRUCE PENINSULA NORTH OF LION’S HEAD, ONTARIO. I HAVE GONE THERE EVERY SUMMER SINCE I BOUGHT THE PLACE IN 1973.

    THE WHIPPOORWILL (IT SEEMS LIKE THERE WAS ONLY ONE BUT I NEVER SAW IT) HAS SUNG THERE IN MY APPLE TREES AT DAWN AND DUSK ALL THOSE YEARS … UNTIL ABOUT 4 SUMMERS AGO.

    I HAVE BEEN WONDERING WHAT HAPPENED TO THEM AND I HAVE TO SAY I MISS THE WHIPPOORWILL’S UNRELENTING TUNE.
    NOTHING HAS CHANGED MUCH ON MY PROPERTY … I USED TO HAVE SOME COWS BUT I HAVEN’T FOR ABOUT 7 YEARS.

    HOW CAN I GET THEM BACK?

  26. JUNE HUCHINGSON JUNE HUCHINGSON
    November 20, 2016    

    DOES ANYONE KNOW WHAT YEAR THE MNR INTRODUCED FISHERS ON THE BRUCE PENINSULA, ONTARIO, CANADA?

    IF THE MNR PUT FISHERS (A WEASEL-LIKE MAMMAL) ON THE BRUCE PENINSULA, IS IT POSSIBLE THAT THEIR FEEDING HABITS ARE THE CAUSE OF THE DEMISE OF THE WHIPPOORWILLS?

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