Department of Environmental Conservation

D E C banner

Whip-poor-will

Photograph of Whip-poor-will
©Philip Jeffrey Photography

Scientific name: Caprimulgus vociferous

New York Status: Special Concern
Federal Status: Not Listed

Description

The whip-poor-will, named for its distinctive call, is more commonly heard than seen. It is crepuscular, which means it is most active at dawn and dusk. However, they do forage at night; on moonlight nights they will hunt for insects all night long. During the day it roosts on the low limbs of trees where it is well-camouflaged. Unlike most birds, the whip-poor-will roosts with its body parallel to the branch. A medium sized nightjar, the whip-poor-will measures 8 to 10 inches in length with a very short bill and long, rounded tail and wings.

map showing the breeding range of the whip-poor-will
Whip-poor-will range map from Birds of the World,
maintained by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Cryptic coloring makes this ground-nesting bird very difficult to detect. Upper parts are mottled gray, black, and brown; while the under parts are pale with gray and black spotting. The black throat is bordered by a white necklace in males and a buff colored necklace in females. Males also have white tips on the outer tail feathers. Large eyes are used for locating prey at night. Whip-poor-wills feed exclusively on night-flying insects such as moths, beetles, and mosquitoes.

Life History

Males establish and maintain territories at the beginning of the breeding season. A clutch of 2 eggs is laid directly on leaf litter on the ground. Incubation is shared by both parents and lasts 19 to 21 days. Parents do not actively defend the nest or their territory but will remain on the nest until a disturbance comes within 1 meter. Chicks are downy and precocial (born at an advanced state) at the time of hatching and nestlings fledge at 15 to 20 days. Females will occasionally leave when chicks are 7 to 9 days old to start a second brood nearby.

Breeding is synchronized with the lunar cycle so that young hatch before a full moon. This maximizes foraging time for parents when the feeding demands imposed by the newly hatched young are highest.

Distribution and Habitat

The breeding range extends from central Canada east to the Atlantic coast and south to Oklahoma and Georgia. Their winter range includes the southeastern United States and Central America. Whip-poor-wills breed in dry, deciduous, or mixed forests with sparse underbrush near open areas needed for foraging. They seem to prefer pitch pine/scrub oak barrens on Long Island and oak-hickory forests in Upstate New York.

Map of Whip-poor-will in New York
Distribution of whip-poor-will in New York from
1st and 2nd NYS Breeding Bird Atlas records.

Status

Although rarely seen, the whip-poor-will is a locally common breeder in parts of New York that are not heavily forested, especially in Long Island and the St. Lawrence Valley. They are absent in the higher elevation areas of the Adirondacks, Catskills, and Tug Hill Plateau. New York State Breeding Bird Atlas results for the state indicate a decline in detections over the last 20 years although it is important to note that survey methods used for the atlas are not conducive to detection of the whip-poor-will. The species has disappeared from many parts of New York which it has previously inhabited.

Management and Research Needs

Like other mainly nocturnal species, the whip-poor-will is not usually detected during Breeding Bird Surveys which are normally conducted during daylight hours. Therefore night-time surveys could give a better indication of the population status, and such surveys do exist. Habitat loss resulting from forest succession is thought to be a major factor resulting in the decline of whip-poor-will numbers in New York. Further study is needed on the habitat characteristics of whip-poor-will habitat. Vehicle collisions also pose a danger to foraging and migrating birds.