Species Spotlight: The Eastern Whip-poor-will

By Annie Perry, MNA Intern

As the weather begins to get warmer, all I’ve been able to think about is summer. I like the long summer days, but what I really love are the cool summer nights. When I think of those nights, one thing comes to mind: my favorite bird species, the eastern whip-poor-will.

The eastern whip-poor-will is a medium-sized bird with a large, rounded head and a stout chest that tapers to a long tail and wings. It has large, dark eyes; a bold, dark central stripe on its crown; and pale, silvery-gray shoulder patches. Its gray and brown mottling camouflages it with leaf litter and tree bark and makes it hard to spot when it roosts in the group or on a tree limb in the daytime.

What makes the eastern whip-poor-will distinctive, though, is the call that gives the bird its namesake. Eastern whip-poor-wills may be hard to see, but they are easy to hear—their endless chanting throughout spring and summer nights has been featured in literature, poems and folk songs. The eastern whip-poor-will has an easily recognized three-syllable call that accents the first and last syllable. Each call immediately follows the other and creates a circular rhythm. If you live near an open-understory forest, you’ll most likely hear them continuously chant their loud whip-poor-will song during spring and summer evenings.

The eastern whip-poor-will has a western counterpart: the Mexican whip-poor-will. These two species were considered one species (simply called the whip-poor-will) until 2011, when they were split into two separate species based on differences in mitochondrial and nuclear DNA. They have physical and vocal differences, as well: the eastern whip-poor-will lays more colorful eggs and has a faster, higher-pitched call.

Eastern whip-poor-wills live in eastern forests with open understories. They can be found in both purely deciduous and mixed deciduous-pine forests, but often live in areas with sandy soil. They spend their winters in broadleaf tropical or subtropical forests near open areas, and arrive back to their northern breeding grounds between late March and mid-May. Eastern whip-poor-wills build no nests, but the eggs, nestlings and adults are so well-camouflaged that they are extremely difficult to see despite having no nest material.

Though still common birds, eastern whip-poor-wills have experienced population decline, mostly due to a loss of open-understory forests from conversion to crops, pasture, urbanization, or dense understories from fire suppression. Eastern whip-poor-wills are on the Partners in Flight Watch List with a concern score of 14 out of 20 and are considered a Common Bird in Steep Decline. The species’ habitat is protected by various MNA sanctuaries, such as the Stephen M. Polovich Memorial Nature Sanctuary in St. Clair County.

For more information, check out the eastern whip-poor-will’s entry in Audubon’s Online Guide to North American Birds.

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