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The Secretive Whip-Poor-Will
By Steve Bryant, Wildlife Biologist, Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries
One of the great sounds of a spring night is the persistent call of the whip-poor-will. Most everyone has heard the call, but it is almost impossible to get a good look at this noisy but secretive bird of the night. Whip-poor-wills are inactive during the day when roosting within wooded cover on the ground, on top of a log, or on low limbs.
The whip-poor-will’s entire body is a mottled mixture of shades of gray and brown with streaks of black. The male does have a thin white band across the lower portion of the throat and the outer three feathers on either side of the tail have white ends. In the female those markings are buff colored. This bird has the strange habit of aligning with the axis of its perch instead of perpendicular as most birds do. This aids in concealment by eliminating an obvious profile view and enhances their exceptional camouflaged coloration.
The whip-poor-will is a common bird in the eastern United States, ranging west to the eastern edge of the Great Plains, north into southern Canada and south to the Gulf states. It winters in the Gulf states southward through Mexico and Central America.
Their ability to use a variety of habitats contributes to the widespread occurrence of whip-poor-wills. They will utilize any type woody cover including mature hardwoods, mixed pine hardwood tracts, or even pine plantations for roosting during the day. With nightfall, they move to open areas such as natural meadows, crop fields, pastures, timbered areas, quiet roads, suburban yards and city parks. Here they stand making their familiar call waiting on flying insects to approach.
The reclusive whip-poor-will of the day becomes a vicious predator by night. This 9-inch-long bird with an approximately 18-inch wingspan and falcon-like configuration spends the night catching on the wing a variety of flying beetles, moths, mosquitoes, flying ants, and occasionally even small birds that are flushed from their roosts. All prey is swallowed whole. Special adaptations assist the whip-poor-will in capturing its prey in mid-air in the dark. It possesses a large head with big eyes. The beak is minute and not used for feeding. The mouth, however, has a wide gape that is fringed with inch-long bristles to aid in funneling insects into the mouth while in flight. The plumage is soft to minimize flight noise.
Though the adaptations of the whip-poor-will as a predator are impressive, their nesting and brood rearing are amazingly simple. They make no nest but simply choose a location in the leaf litter of deciduous forests, often beneath a low overhanging bush. If nesting in open terrain, a shaded ravine is sometimes used. The female will lay two white to grayish eggs. These will be marked with splotches and lines of yellow, brown and purple. The female has most of the responsibility for incubation and care for the young. The male is seldom involved. Incubation of the eggs requires around 19 days. The young are covered with down at hatching but are otherwise helpless. The hen will feed them insects she has captured for about a month until they are fledged. If the young are disturbed while flightless, their defense is to stay motionless and rely on their camouflage to avoid detection.
Perhaps soon, on a warm summer night, you will hear the song “whip-poor-will…whip poor-will.” With a little luck, you may be able to locate the source and observe this normally elusive bird as it sings its nighttime serenade.