By Matt Dowell
The Whip-poor-will gets its common name because it can be heard calling a repeated “whip-poor-will” around dusk or after dark from spring to late summer. During the warmer climates of the year they can be found in the mid-eastern part of the United States, and they migrate south, ranging from South Carolina down along the Gulf of Mexico to Guatemala, during cold climates. The Whip-poor-will is rarely seen because it is nocturnal, which makes it most active during moonlit nights because it forages visually. As a result, the breeding seems to be linked to the lunar cycles. Its breeding habitat is in deciduous or mixed woodlands, and it usually likes to stay in trees near open fields. One reason for this may be their diet; they strictly eat insects, such as moths, ants, and grasshoppers.
The usual length of the Whip-poor-will is nine to ten inches, with a medium length tail, and it has a very short bill that turns into a large spread when opened. Its body is mottled with the colors gray, black, and brown. A good way to identify the adult male from the female is that the males have white tips to the outer tail feathers, where the females have buff tips. Whip-poor-will birds only lay one or two eggs, and they do not build a nest. Rather, they lay the white eggs, which are blotched with gray and brown, on the open forest ground among dead leaves. The mother incubates the eggs during the day, but during the night both parents share the incubation duties. When the eggs hatch, the chicks are soon able to hop around, but are still highly protected by the parent Whip-poor-wills. When a predator comes along, the chicks scatter and freeze while the parents perform a distraction.
Being a bird, the Whip-poor-will is of course in the Animalia kingdom, and in the Chordata phylum. It is in the Aves class with the Strigiformes order, and it is in the Caprimulgidae family; hence the scientific name of Caprimulgus vociferous.
Written spring 2004, as a service learning project for Dr. Gary Coté's Biology 102 class at Radford University. Copyright Pathways for Radford.
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