I was driving home from town after dark last night and spooked a whip-poor-will off my gravel road. I breathed a small sigh of relief that it flew into the woods farther from the house. This guy likes to hang out around my house and garden and that is a problem.
Not a particularly attractive bird, their camouflage is nevertheless perfect for their habitat – eastern US forests with open understories. That’s my habitat, too, as it happens.
The Eastern Whip-poor-will has a distinctive “song” – it is repetitive, relentlessly so.
You do not have to listen to all 46 seconds. Seriously.
They are nocturnal, and, at this time of year, he sings at night and in the early hour before dawn seeking a she to love. When Fergus and I go out for bedtime walkies, he has to chase the whip-poor-will out of the garden or away from the patio before he can focus. At 5 a.m., it wakes up the puppy and therefore me, so we are out for pre-dawn walkies, both of us stumbling around yawning. This morning, I lay in bed counting the duration of the so-called singing – the first bout was, I don’t know, somewhere over 100 reps, the second bout – precisely 63. That’s when Fergus decided it was time to head outside. We are both sleep deprived. This is the look I received after our early morning foray this morning.
When My Darling Husband and I first moved to the mountains from Texas, we thought it was absolutely charming, driving up our road after dark, seeing the whip-poor-will take off in front of us, carried along in the light of our headlamps. We started off sleeping with our bedroom window cracked open for the cool night air. Until the bird started singing right outside. The first time or two, it was, “How wonderful! A whip-poor-will!” Quite soon it was, “Shut the damned window. Got earplugs?”
The whip-poor-will has been – somewhat – romanticized in our popular culture, in poetry and more commonly in song lyrics. Especially country/western or earlier pop and rock and roll … Fats Domino “My Blue Heaven, Elton John “Philadelphia Freedom”, Jim Croce “I Got A Name”, everyone “Tammy” and, of course, Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” (I’m embedding the Elvis version because, Elvis):
In doing some research for this post, I was saddened and a little surprised (based on my personal experience) to learn that the Eastern Whip-poor-will* population is on the decline thanks to suburban sprawl and agriculture eliminating more and more of their habitat, insecticides and, it is thought, predation by feral cats and dogs. Or other causes so far unknown.
I’ll happily live with the early Summer mating calls.
Wild birds are a bit of a hobby for me. I feed them year-round. I’ve had my hummingbird feeders up for a month already although the traffic is still a little sparse. I like getting buzzed when I’m in the garden. Barred owls and various hawks frequent my place thanks to the rabbits, squirrels, mice, chipmunks and voles. And, while I like the idea of whip-poor-wills, I really really wish he’d get a mate and we could all sleep better.
Don’t get me wrong. I know that I’m the interloper in this part of the forest and must share my space with the natural inhabitants, no matter how annoying or destructive of my personal stuff they might be. I try to work out compromises and establish reasonable boundaries – fences and motion sensor sprinklers to keep the deer away from plants, an electric fence to keep bears away from the bees, things like that. We rock along. No matter how much effort or patience it might take, at this time in my life, I wouldn’t trade all this
*There is a separate population, known as the Mexican Whip-poor-will that inhabits a range covering the Southwest US and Mexico. That population has different vocalizations, different egg coloration, and DNA sequencing that shows differentiation.