Nature, Science and You Series

Here is a bird which you have probably never seen, but might very well have heard. The Whip-poor-will is known much more by its call, than by how it looks.
This bird is about the same size as a robin. But it has a totally different shape. It appears bigger than it really is because its feathers are usually quite fluffed up.
The Whip-poor-will’s colour is mostly various shades of brown, with a bit of buff or black thrown in. It has a white throat, and some white parts on the end of its tail, which only show up when it flies.
The mix of colours is almost exactly the same as that of dead leaves. So this bird is extremely well camouflaged. It is another one which can disappear by just staying still.
It has bristles on the side of its mouth. And that mouth is enormous–it appears to open almost to the back of its head. And here is a bit of an oddity–it’s eyes shine red when caught in the headlights, or the beam of a flashlight.
Almost everyone knows what it sounds like. It says its name over and over again, ad nauseum! Just try to sleep in a tent, or a cabin, when one of these birds is near. It has a loud voice, and will continue forever, it seems. Usually the Whip-poor-will will repeat its call from ten to a dozen times, to maybe 50 or 60 times without stopping. Some people have counted up to 400 or more ‘whip-poor-wills’ in one go. Take your earplugs when you go camping.
The calls start in the evening when the sun is partially down–the half-light, the gloaming. He sings for quite a while and then, mercifully, shuts up for most of the night. But he starts up again in the half-light of early morning. His last songs are mixed up with those of the daytime birds.
The Whip-poor-will usually sings from a stump, the top of a small tree, a fence post. This bird has very small, weak feet. It nests on the ground, in a place where there are lots of dead leaves.. The female makes no attempt at all to make a nest. Her body, after while, makes a small depression in the ground.
When disturbed, the female pretends, to be hurt, in much the same way as killdeers, and some others, do. Whip-poor-will’s legs are so short and weak that they can’t walk very well anyway, so it’s not much of a stretch to fool a predator into thinking that she is wounded.
Although best known for its usual song, it does make some other sounds, too–clucks, coos and even hisses. When it is startled, it makes a really odd sound, like a drop of water falling into a pond or a pail.
Whenever this bird alights in a tree, it usually sits lengthwise on a branch, rather than crosswise like almost all other birds do. Those weak, small feet likely have something to do with that.
The Whip-poor-will lives entirely on insects. That great big mouth means that it can catch even the largest ones in the air. Fair game are the big Sphinx moths, and the great Cecropias and the Polyphemus. It will gobble up grasshoppers at a great rate.
The Whip-poor-will (Caprimulgus vociferus) is found across much of Canada, from Saskatchewan to Nova Scotia. It is not really very common here in Northern Ontario. But, as a lot of campers and cottagers know, it is here for sure. Listen for it at dusk or dawn. You won’t have any problem knowing what it is.