To understand Whip-poor-will day, you must know a little something about the bird it is named for.
The Whip-poor-will is a member of the Nightjar, or Goatsucker family. This includes its cousins, the Poor-will, and the Chuck-will’s Widow, plus the Common Nighthawk, which we call a “bullbat” in the South.
This family of birds is nocturnal and eats insects as they fly. They are gifted with several features that make this possible. First they have large eyes for seeing in the twilight and at night. Then they have a wide mouth for catching insects on the fly. Additionally they possess bristles on each corner of their mouth that acts as fences to keep the insects caught from escaping.
Because whip-poor-wills only become active at night, they are very seldom seen. Because of their “dead leaf” camouflage pattern, they blend in well with the surrounding woods, making them nearly impossible to find in grass or on the forest floor.
Their designation as “goatsuckers” goes back centuries to rural Europe. Peasants, seeing their activity at dusk as they flew around, and even under, herds of goats and cattle, believed they were sucking milk from the animals. In reality, they were zooming in for the insects buzzing around the animals.
During the day, they rest lengthwise on tree limbs or in thick grassy and leaf-covered areas.
In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a whip-poor-will. I’ve seen a darting bird at dusk that was near the call of one, but I’m not positive it was a whip-poor-will.
But I’ve heard them many times. Their call is from which their name is derived. Their three syllable call says, “whip-poooor-will” with a strong emphasis on the first and last syllable. Bird books describe the call as “purple rib.” To attempt to describe this bird’s call on paper does not do it justice. Even a recording of its call, as found on a CD of bird calls, is far short of hearing this bird in its natural environment.
The whip-poor-will’s sorrowful call must be heard in the woods at twilight or first light it is a soft, touching, and mournful call. Roger Tory Peterson calls it, “a voice in the night.”
This mournful solo call is what Hank Williams was talking about in the song, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”
Hear that lonesome whip-poor-will,
He sounds too blue to fly.
Like me he’s lost the will to live,
I’m so lonesome I could cry…
In many parts of our country, from Arkansas northward, the whip-poor-will’s call is a common sound. I once camped alone on the Kiamichi River in Western Oklahoma and was serenaded all night long by a trio of these calling birds. For the first hour I really enjoyed hearing them. After that the thrill of their calling was gone, so I stuffed toilet paper in my ears. (It works – I’ve used it often when camping with loud snorers.)
I once read about a camper who counted a solo whip-poor-will’s call 256 consecutive times at about a steady twenty second interval. The bird’s calls, and their corresponding intervals, were perfectly timed for this ninety minute period.
Here is why hearing a whip-poor-will is a noteworthy event in my part of Louisiana: The whip-poor-will does not breed or winter in the southern parts of our state. It passes through Louisiana twice yearly – first on its’ journey south to winter in Central America, as far south as Honduras.
On this fall journey the whip-poor-will has no voice. It stays here for a short period until the next cold front moves it on south across the Gulf.
Then on its’ return northward flight, it only stays a few weeks in our state. On this spring visit, it is now ready to sing and call. Beginning in late March through the first three weeks of April, whip-poor-wills can be heard calling throughout the wooded areas and fields of our state.
There are times I’ve heard what seemed to be a nearby call and tried to slowly approach the area and flush this bird, but I’ve never succeeded.
My dad first informed me about “Whip-poor-will Day.” He had been told about it by his grandmother, who had been told about it by her grandmother. Here is what he passed on to me:
“You’ll hear the whip-poor-will many evenings at the end of March. As April arrives, more of the birds have arrived from their winter homes. By mid to late April you’ll notice that their calling is heard much less until it stops as the first truly hot days return to Southwestern Louisiana.”
Dad continued, “But since I was a small boy and was told about April 6 being Whip-poor-will Day, I’ve never failed to hear one call at dusk on that day. That’s why my grandmother and the other old settlers called it
‘Whip-poor-will Day.’ And I’ve found it to be true – you’ll always hear a whip-poor-will in the edge of Crooked Bayou swamp on this day.”
So whenever I can on April 6, sometimes at first daylight, but most of the time at dusk, I return to the Old House and sit on the steps just listening. There have been several times when I was ready to give up and drive home because of the gathering darkness, and then I would finally hear that unmistakable call –
“Whip poooor willll”
Sometimes it would be close to my spot on the front steps. At other times it would be faint and far off in the swamp, but each year I have been rewarded for my journey to hear the whip-poor-will’s call on April 6th.
I’ll close with my most memorable Whip-poor-will Day. It was in 1991. My maternal grandmother had passed away and my grandfather, Sidney Plott, had come to live with my parents. “Grandpa Sid,” as his three grandchildren lovingly called him, was a serious bird watcher. He had had a lifelong interest in birds and their habits for all of his eight decades of life.
We all missed my grandmother, especially her husband of sixty-two years. But I’ll cherish those last two years he lived with us in Dry Creek.
The legend of Whip-poor-will Day had come from my dad’s side of the family, who had lived in this corner of Beauregard Parish since before the Civil War.
Early that spring, I told Grandpa Sid, about the legend of April 6th and Whip-poor-will Day. Because this story came from the other side of my family, I’m not sure he put much confidence in this legend. He looked at me with twinkling eyes and a slight smile as if he wasn’t sure I was kidding or not.
In 1991, April 6th was on a Saturday. As the sun set behind the pines Grandpa and I went out south of my parent’s home. As we leaned on an old fence gazing across a cleared area in the dusk, I remember praying that God would be kind and have a whip-poor-will call. I realized that God probably had a lot more going on than worrying about calling whip-poor-wills, but I reminded myself that Jesus said that His Father knew when a sparrow fell, so I figured he cared about whip-poor-wills too.
We hadn’t been there very long when a nearby Whip-poor-will called. It startled both of us and my grandpa’s earlier slight smile turned into a knowing grin.
From far away, we heard the faint return call from another bird deep in the swamp. We just stood there silent, leaning on the fence, each one deep in thought.
I know why my tongue was silent – any attempt to speak would have brought tears. Grandpa stood there quietly with a far off look in his eyes. I wasn’t about to interrupt or pry into his heart at this time. To me it was a sacred moment… and many times sacred moments are best spent in silence.
I hope God blesses me with a long life. The length of our lives is in His hands and we must trust Him completely. I’d sure like to be around long enough to one day stand with one of my grandchildren, or even better yet, a
great-grandchild, and share this story I’m now sharing with you.
They say that an older person spends lot of time looking back into the past as their life nears an end. I’m pretty sure that is exactly what Grandpa was doing as darkness came on that April day in 1991. I think he knew this was probably his final spring in life, as well as his last Whip-poor-will Day.
And it was…