Photo Credit: Eric C. Soehren
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Caprimulgus vociferus
OTHER NAMES: nightjar, goatsucker
DESCRIPTION: The whip-poor-will is nine inches tall with an approximate eighteen inch wingspan that resemble falcon’s wings in configuration. The bird has a large head and eyes with a tiny beak. The mouth has a large gape and is fringed with inch long bristles to aid in capturing insects while in flight. The plumage is very soft to facilitate noiseless flying. Coloration is usually a mottled mixture of shades of gray and brown with streaks of black. The lower portion of the throat is crossed by a thin band of white. In the male the three outer pairs of tail feathers are white at the ends. In the female these are buff in color.
DISTRIBUTION: The whip-poor-will is common in the eastern United States; it ranges west to the eastern edge of the Great Plains, north into southern Canada and south to the Gulf States. The whip-poor-will is commonly heard throughout Alabama in the spring. It winters in the Gulf States southward through Mexico and Central America.
HABITAT: The whip-poor-will utilizes a variety of habitats including hardwood forest, mixed pine and hardwood forests, pine plantations, city parks, grounds around human habitation, meadows, fields and pastures.
FEEDING HABITS: Whip-poor-wills roost on the ground, on top of logs, or on low limbs during the day. It prefers wooded cover. It aligns itself with the axis of its perch as opposed to perpendicular as most birds do. As darkness falls, whip-poor-wills will fly into openings or seldom used roadways to stand and make their familiar call. When a likely insect is spotted, it will take flight in an attempt to capture its prey. If the insect is captured it will be consumed on the wing after which the whip-poor-will will return to the ground to watch for more prey and continue calling. Whip-poor-wills can navigate through the woods exceptionally well in the dark catching insects flying near the ground. It feeds on flying beetles, moths, mosquitoes, flying ants, and has even been known to eat small birds flushed from their perch at night. It swallows all prey whole.
LIFE HISTORY AND ECOLOGY: The whip-poor-will is named after the call it makes. These calls can be heard as early as March or April in the Gulf States and May and June in the northern states. It makes no attempt to build a nest but simply chooses a location in the leaf litter of a deciduous forest, often beneath a low overhanging bush. 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 rarely involved. The eggs hatch after approximately 19 days. The young are covered with down 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 completely motionless and rely on their camouflage to avoid detection.
AboutBirds.org An online information site of facts and information about birds. Accessed on 01/24/06 at http://www.aboutbirds.org.
Birds and All Nature: An online information site with information about birds and other aspects of nature. Accessed on 01/24/06 at http://www.birdnature.com.
Cruickshank, Alland and Helen G. Cruickshank, 1976 1001 Questions Answered About Birds, Dover Publications, Inc. New York, New York. Pages 122, 142, 163-164, 166, 169 and 191-192.
North Carolina Wild (Wildlife Profiles) An online information site maintained by the Division of Conservation Education, N. C. Wildlife Resources Commission accessed on 06/13/06 at http://www.ncwildlife.org.
Pearson, T. Gilbert, Editor, 1936. Birds of America, Pearson, Doubleday & Company Garden City, New York. Pages 168-170.
AUTHOR: Steve Bryant, Wildlife Biologist, Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, December 2005