From the Archives #3: Are Whip-poor-wills actually sad?

I this 1875 essay, “Teaching to Think,” by George S. Burleigh on teaching and learning. Let me count the ways.

1. It follows an essay “Walks Among the Trees – No. 1: For Young People,” which offers teaching practices for acquainting ourselves with trees. That article opens with this bucolic passage, which I doubt would open any piece on teaching and learning today: “Our friends, the trees, are always inviting us to their delightful shades, cool retreats and charming bowers, from early spring when the anemones and blue violets first open their happy eyes till the last golden or crimson leaf of autumn days has gone to sleep beneath their bare branches.” In my own writing on outdoor education, I didn’t dare to take this much poetic license.

Imagine a moment when every educator knows, as the author of this essay imagines we do, the names of wildflowers and the trees by their leaves.

2. Burleigh’s essay itself makes the case for forms of teaching and learning beyond the memorization of facts, though these are, indeed, at the foundation of his practice. Rather, he encourages educators to teach ways of thinking about and organizing those facts. Sure, the approach is fairly analytic–Burleigh encourages us to help students learn to organize facts into categories that will allow them to make distinctions between and among the things of the world. And still, it’s a far cry from what most of us have experienced as learning: the mass accumulation of facts, unmoored from systems of meaning.

To be thoughtful, is one thing ; to teach, another ; to think, is a more complex affair.

3. The essay mentions the Whip-poor-will. Of course it does. Why else would I be writing of it here? In fact, the essay is ripe with images and metaphors from the natural world. The quality of soil stands in for the quality of mind of learners. There’s also a hawk and a marsh and a crab and a cow. And more: an ant, a violet, a cornstalk. This is not an essay about these beings and environments. And yet the essay is enriched by Burleigh’s engagement with the world beyond the classroom.

4. And then there’s the Whip-poor-will. Burleigh wants us to think beyond our mental stereotypes of the world, particularly our stereotypes of other living species. So he calls into question the stereotype of the melancholy — in the mid-1900s, we’ll begin saying lonesome — Whip-poor-will.

Immemorial tradition calls the whippoorwill melancholy, so when he pipes his merriest, people straightway fall into a pensive vein, think of dead flowers, funerals and evil portents, and the superstitious drive off the poor bird that they may avert the disaster he prophesies, as if to foretell was to cause, and a threatened life might be insured by stoning the prophet. But when we give tradition the cold shoulder and look only at the fact, we find the whippoorwill a jolly bird, social, emulous, a lover of man, and so full of eager rivalries he will hurry his song to get it out before his brother’s, till all together they whip up, dropping one syllable and another, “whippo,” “whip, whip,” – as many a night I have heard them on the old home hill-side. So to me he sings of pleasant memories and glad thoughts.

There’s much to unpack here, particularly in relation to my previous posts. Burleigh gives lie to the coherence of Whip-poor-will’s song, as translated by the English: “Whip poor will.” His own observations have the bird singing minor variations of its three syllables, particularly when it is singing in chorus with other birds.

Burleigh also suggests that the melancholy Whip-poor-will is a false judgement of the bird. I’m not smitten with his own impression — that the bird is jolly, social, emulous, and a lover of man — as I find it replaces one “old formula,” as he describes these stereotypes earlier in the essay, with a new formula. And yet I appreciate him cutting across the grain of generations of cultural constructions of the bird.

And finally, there is this: the seed of nostalgia in Burleigh’s closing observation: “So to me he sings of pleasant memories and glad thoughts.” What is nostalgia if not the bittersweetness of glad memories?

From the Archives #2: The Mockingbird and the Whip-poor-Will (1870)

In “Magpie to the Morning,” Neko Case invokes a Mockingbird singing a Whip-poor-will’s song. It’s a lovely play on the standard image of these two birds, both of which have long been referenced in human literature and song. (For more, see my entry on Case’s song.)

Given the decline of Whip-poor-will populations, combined with the fact that most people encounter Norther Mockingbirds singing in suburban habitats that teach the birds the songs of common birds and human technologies, I’m left wondering how often today’s Mockingbirds sing the lonesome cry of a Whip-poor-will.

Historically, however, we’ve indeed encountered Mockingbirds’ covering Whip-poor-wills. In an 1870 letter to the scientific journal Nature, a William Taylor dismisses the possibility of non-human animal language. Among the non-human animals he references is the Northern Mockingbird.

The mocking-bird mimics the song of the whip-poor-will, the creaking of the wheelbarrow, the lowing of the ox, and the pattering of the rain ; but does it ever, like the Greeks, Romans, and Gaels, speak of the ox by the name bo ; or, like us, speak of the rain as pattering ; …

Four decades later, the Mockingbird continued to mimic Whip-poor-wills, at least according to a report published in The Auk. In “Notes on a Massachusetts Mockingbird” (1911), S. Waldo Bailey reports of a Mockingbird that sings the songs of at least 20 northern birds, including the Whip-poor-will. Bailey describes the Mockingbird’s imitation as “with spiteful accent,” a curious enough phrase.

These are Mockingbirds I want to hear — pattering, creaking, lowing, and Whip-poor-willing. It leaves me wondering about the changing repertoire of Mockingbirds, particularly as bird populations and the technological landscape both change. I can’t imagine a Mockingbird with the low of an ox or creek of a wheelbarrow, but I have heard them screeching like car alarms and beeping like a car being unlocked by fob.

And I wonder, too, where today a Mockingbird still sings, “Whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will.” I suppose where you find that mimic, you’d find the Whip-poor-will himself.

From the Archives #1: Whip-poor-will perches on gun (1907).

Dr. Dog’s singer, Scott McMicken, wasn’t the first to fantasize about shooting a Whip-poor-will. In 1907, the Washington Times published a story about a man who tried shooting a Whip-poor-will that kept him awake. The story itself seems farcical, and the Times of 1907 seems a mix of news, rumor, gossip, and maybe invented stories?

WINSTED, Conn July 5

“Whip-poor-will – whip-poor-will.”

Before daybreak a bird’s notes awoke Louis Reutler, who had sought rest at Lake Wonksunfuouk, a few miles from here. Reutler became peevish, got his shotgun and fired at the whip-poor-will, perched on a tree outside his bedroom.

Routler, until recently proprietor of the Beardsley House, was nearly asleep when—

“Whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will.”

Quite angry, Reutler shot at the bird again. The third time he fired the whip-poor-will flew to him, alighted on his gun barrel and sang sweetly:


Reutler went to the lake and plunged in to cool himself off.

Details around this story are difficult to confirm. (Obviously, the story itself is impossible to confirm.) There is a Louis Reutler buried in Indiana, where the Beardsley House is. Reutler’s life spans the time period in which this story happens. There is a town in Connecticut called Winsted. There doesn’t appear to be a lake called “Lake Wonksunfuouk” in CT these days, and there are no records of it in Google Books.

No matter the details, the story, perhaps, is a morality tale about man and nature. Read today, the casual violence toward animals stuns. But so, too, does the fact that the Times took for granted that the reader of this story would fully understand the details in question — what a Whip-poor-will is, that it sings its name, and that it sings incessantly at night.


This story was also published in The Washington Post and the Cincinnati Enquirer on July 5, 1907. I’m not at all sure what to make of this.

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