People passionate about nature

Eastern Whip-poor-will

Above: Eastern Whip-poor-will, drawing by Rudolph Koes

How do I recognize it?

As the whip-poor-will is strictly nocturnal, seeing one is difficult. On the other hand, during the breeding season it calls during much of the night, at times seemingly without stop for hours. Cottage owners in areas where it occurs can attest to that! The bird can be recognized by its mottled brown plumage, with bold white outer-tail feathers. Its wings are broader than those of a Common Nighthawk, and it lacks that species’ white wing-flash. Otherwise these two species are roughly the same size.

Does it migrate?

This species is an aerial insectivore, specialized in capturing large flying insects. Hence the need for it to head south in the fall, to spend the winter in the extreme southeastern United States and Central America. It returns to Manitoba as early as the beginning of May.

Where does it live?

Above: Eastern Whip-poor-will, photo supplied by Christian Artuso

In Manitoba it breeds in a broad band that stretches from the extreme southeast of the province in a northwesterly direction about as far north as Flin Flon. It is absent from the prairie region and most of the north. Within its range in this province it is now most common in the southern and central Interlake, where it prefers a mixture of open areas interspersed with deciduous woodlots. It is also still quite common to the east of both the Red River Valley and the southern end of Lake Winnipeg.

Where can I see it?

As mentioned above, seeing a Whip-poor-will is a matter of luck, such as when its eyes reflect the headlight beam of a vehicle. Birds start calling well after sunset and stop before dawn. On rare occasions one may be found roosting on the ground.

Conservation Status

Above: Eastern Whip-poor-will, photo supplied by Christian Artuso

The Eastern Whip-poor-will is part of a group of birds, such as nighthawks, swifts, flycatchers and swallows, that feed almost exclusively by eating insects caught on the wing. As insect numbers have declined over the decades, so have the birds that rely on them. Currently the whip-poor-will is still listed as being of Least Concern by several authorities, but most long-time Manitoba birders will agree that numbers have plummeted over the past decades. Threats on the breeding grounds are mainly due to habitat loss.

Did you know?

In the account of Eastern Whip-poor-will in Bent’s Life Histories he mentions the following: “He (John Burroughs) records that he heard a bird ‘lay upon the back of poor will’ 1088 blows with only a rarely perceptible pause here and there, as if to take breath”.

Written by, Rudolf Koes