Hidden Corners of History: Whippoorwill’s Last Call

Jarrod E. Stephens

The Ashland Beacon


   “Hear that lonesome whippoorwill; he sounds too blue to fly.”

   If you are a fan of country music, then you likely identified the previous line as being from the song “I’m so Lonesome I could Cry” by Hank Williams. While ole Hank was a master of words and had the ability to almost make you feel his pain, I have never felt that the sound of the whippoorwill sounded lonely or dreary. Hank Williams had a different perspective on the call of the whippoorwill but his sentiments of the bird’s call being sad or mysterious is also shared by other writers and various cultural beliefs.

   For some native cultures the call of the whippoorwill was quite unsettling since they believed that its call was associated with a soul leaving a body. It was a terrifying omen if one called too near your home. Believe me, if I felt that was true, I would certainly not enjoy their rhythmic call. However, for me, the whippoorwill has always been one of the most anticipated guests to our country hollers as their call is a sure sign that spring has arrived.

   As the late winter freeze thaw cycle gives way to the warming days in March, the farmer finally gets some relief from that itch that has plagued them all winter long. Anyone who truly loves to farm spends each winter day looking forward to spring when we can put our hands in the soil. Around the first week of April the woods are greeted with the echoing of the newly arriving whippoorwills that return from their winter retreats. 

   At first you typically only hear a few "whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will" calls scattered throughout the holler. Each night there is an increasing number of calls each night until there is a steady call each night. A drive up a gravel road in spring or summer will lead to a close encounter with the whippoorwill as they sit in the road to make their call. The whippoorwill loves open forest areas and clearings where they'll call and eventually lay their eggs. 

   Since the whippoorwill is a ground-nesting bird it is quite vulnerable to predators that love to eat their eggs and even their chicks. Coyotes, fox, racoons, and owls are their most serious wild threat while domesticated dogs and cats also pose a threat.

   The nighttime call of the whippoorwill is actually its way of attracting its mate. The females will lay only two speckled eggs on a nest of leaf litter. After hatching the chicks are cared for by both parents and begin flying only twenty days after hatching. 

   Sadly, much like the aforementioned "good" country music tune, there has also been a sharp decline in the number of whippoorwills across their native range. There is much speculation as to what, other than natural predators, is causing the decline. Pesticides and habitat destruction seem to be the most likely causes. Since the whippoorwill stirs in the night most folks have not noticed its steady population decline. 

   A few years ago, I wrote a novel that highlighted the togetherness or farming families. In one chapter I mentioned hearing whippoorwills as we harvested our tobacco around the Labor Day weekend. A reader contacted me and said they never recalled hearing whippoorwills as late as Labor Day in our region. Funny thing, their comment arrived in my inbox on a particular evening after Labor Day and I happened to be on the front porch. Low and behold, echoing in the holler in front of my house was the sound of a whippoorwill. More recently I heard one last week and saw a few flittering around near our hay field late one evening. 

   With Labor Day behind us we are indeed approaching the days whenever the whippoorwills will begin their southward migration. Since they feed primarily on insects they head south before cold weather sends our insects underground. Late in the evenings the adult birds will flutter near field edges and congregate together before they leave. 

   Unfortunately for those of us who love the warmer months of the year, summer is coming to a close and the whippoorwill's departure is one of many tell-tale signs that cooler weather is just around the corner. Without the sound of the whippoorwill in the forests and hollers, the other creatures certainly must notice their musical absence and perhaps they feel so lonesome that they could cry. 

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