Why you should worry about the Halloween Whip-poor-will.

In 1926, Whip-poor-wills refused to leave the central Massachusetts town of Dunwich until after Halloween. The birds gathered in flocks — another inauspicious behavior — outside the Whateley farmhouse. There, the birds chanted their call in unison:

whip poor will, whip poor will, whip poor will.

Lavinia Whateley was never seen again.

H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror” is arguably the most famous horror story to invoke Whip-poor-wills. Lovecraft has the birds engage in all sorts of un-Whip-poor-will-like behaviors — the flocks, the chants in unison, the late autumn departures. The birds are keyed to the deaths of humans, especially the “unnatural” humans like the Whateleys.

Lovecraft’s story wasn’t the first to invoke Whip-poor-wills to elevate a horror story. Washington Irving had a Whip-poor-will torment Ichibod Crane in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” No doubt, the species was once common and well known around Tarrytown, where the headless ghost of a Hessian soldier pursued Crane. Crane, who seems generally afraid of the dark, heard the Whip-poor-will’s call as a moan, which blended with other noises: “the boding cry of the tree toad, that harbinger of storm, the dreary hooting of the screech owl, or the sudden rustling in the thicket of birds frightened from their roost.”

Neither was Lovecraft the first to invoke the unnaturally late Whip-poor-will. A decade or so before Lovecraft’s Whip-poor-wills postponed their fall migration to collect Lavinia Whateley’s soul, the journalist Clifford Raymond kept Whip-poor-wills at the Harteley House through October Hunter’s Moon. The birds waited around for this forgotten novel’s climatic scene, foretelling a death at the haunted house.

Out of Place, Out of Time

Nightbirds have long had a hold on the human imagination. They appear as shadows to us, as poor as our night vision is. They hoot and screech and churr and jar from hidden perches. We’ve associated them with impending doom — illness, suffering, death.

Shakespeare knew this, portending Caesar’s death by a daytime owl.

And yesterday the bird of night did sit
Even at noonday, upon the market-place,
Hooting and shrieking.

“Screeching owls are almost universally feared,” the anthropologist Edward Armstrong writes in The Folklore of Birds (1970, p. 115). But “this bird was especially ominous because of its unnatural behaviour.”

Thus, the literary allure of the unnaturally late Whip-poor-will, who persists into the darkness and cold of October — the Hunter’s Moon, the Halloween. And so, too, the allure of the unusual flocks that Lovecraft imagines, birds who chant with rather than against each other. Or the daytime Whip-poor-wills of Chapelwaite, an Epix series based on Stephen King’s short story Jerusalem’s Lot.

When birds no longer heed the laws of nature, something monstrous approaches.

So what should you do if you hear a Whip-poor-will on Halloween?


That Time when Americans thought Eagles would Snatch Babies.

Jack E. Davis’s book The Bald Eagle reminds us that the national symbol was once erased from the lower 48. One reason? The belief that eagles hunted babies.

I just finished reading Jack E. Davis’ wonderful book The Bald Eagle: The Improbably Journey of America’s Bird. The book is a stunning account of the Bald Eagle’s natural history in the U.S. and Canada, as well as the species’ journey through policy, politics, and culture. Davis’ writing is beautiful, crisp, and loving. And the story is an epic as Bald Eagles themselves.

In truth, it took me much longer than it ought to have. I took breaks to read Sy Montgomery’s essays on hawks and hummingbirds. In part, the book reads slower than it might because there’s a lot packed into the book’s 380+ pages. Especially names. Names upon names. Of naturalists, activists, hunters, poachers, politicians (some who venerated the Bald Eagle, many who didn’t), and conservationists. Many of the names are lost (at least to me) to the arch of the story — from the Eagle’s veneration at the country’s founding, U.S. Americans quickly moved to assaults on the bird, only to realize in time to save them.

Some of these assaults were outright. Some farmers and ranchers killed (and still kill) hawks and eagles to protect domestic animals. Some hunters and fishers antagonize the bird (and still do) to protect prey for humans. Many states once had bounties on the bird, and hunters would exchange talons for dollars.

Other assaults were less direct, but no less fatal. Habitat loss and DDT, especially, nearly did to Bald Eagles what generations of persecution had failed to do: wipe the birds from the continent.

But as every birder knows, Davis’ story has a happy ending. Thanks to the careful and dogged effort of conservationists, Bald Eagles were guided through the worst of DDT’s impact. According to Davis, their population today matches what it did when their land was first colonized by Europeans. While every eagle encounter may still be captivating, such encounters are no longer rare, as they were just four decades ago.

Misunderstanding the Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle by Philipp Pilz on Unsplash.com
Photo by Philipp Pilz on Unsplash

U.S. Americans persecuted Bald Eagles for many reasons. Most of those have to do with our view of nature as an exploitable resource that serves humans, first, and all others last. From our perspective, Bald Eagles violate this rule by hunting some of the same animals we hunt. Or worse, that we raise to eat ourselves.

But worse than any of this was the fact — well, actually, fiction — that eagles not only ate our food, they also ate our babies. In the early 20th century, some Americans believed that Bald Eagles hunted children, snatching babies from yards and carriages. No matter that eagles can’t carry infants and toddlers. Members of Congress, children’s writers, nature writers, even ornithologists spread the lie of the eagle who hunts human babies.

So, too, did the nascent film industry. Davis’ describes a brief, silent film that Thomas Edison’s movie studied produced in 1908. Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest stars D. W. Griffith, who later go on to direct the racist film Birth of a Nation, as a father who pursues an eagle back to the bird’s nest, where Griffith’s baby has been taken. The film is a sad and awkward 7 minutes or so of propaganda against the eagle. The bird herself appears in the form of a stuffed specimen that, by ropes, hoists the real human baby into the air and back to the eagle’s eyrie.

Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest (1908)

Edison’s studio has a dubious record, to put it mildly, of representing non-human animals. Five years before making Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest the studio released a film of an elephant, “Topsy,” being electrocuted to death.

We’ve come a long way from the misbelief of this film. But we haven’t yet come far enough. There’s still a general distrust of hawks and eagles. I’ve heard, more than once, that they’re likely to take dogs. They generally won’t, unless those dogs are the smallest of small dogs. No doubt people, vehicles, and other dogs attack dogs more regularly than do raptors. I’ve also had neighbors ask me if Turkey Vultures, which feed on carrion, will attack dogs. They definitely won’t, unless something gets to the dog first.

Davis’ book is an corrective to all of this. Davis is meticulous in his research. He is loving in his descriptions of both eagles and the people who care for them.

Most of all, Davis respects the unbridgeable difference between us and Bald Eagles. Sure, we’re now entangled: Eagle and Nation, eagle and people, nest and cul-de-sac (or golf course or reservoir or stadium lights or cell phone tower). But Eagles, like all other living things, neither exist for us nor on our terms.

Featured Photo by Ingo Doerrie on Unsplash

Book Review: Flights of Fancy by Peter Tate

Peter Tate’s book Flights of Fancy documents the odd and unusual in European folklore of birds.

Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend and Superstition by Peter Tate describes thirty European species of birds and the folklores surrounding them.

The book’s chapter on nightjars led me to it. This chapter, like most in the book offers a brief history of the species in European legend. It offers a fairly rudimentary description of these legends, and most of the chapter’s content could be gleaned from the Wikipedia entry on the European Nightjar. (In fairness to Tate, he wrote a brief, but impactful natural history of Nightjars. Most of the Wiki entry on the species could be gleaned from Tate’s earlier account.)

This is typical of the book, as many Goodreads’ reviewers of it have noted. Some of the chapters offer rather basic descriptions of folklore surrounding European birds. And Flights of Fancy isn’t ripe with references that lead readers back to historical sources.

And yet I found the book, as a whole, endearing and informative, if not a bit beguiling for the strangeness of European beliefs around birds. Barnacle geese, for instance, were believed to have been born not from eggs but something like a mix of sea foam and barnacles.

Barnacle Geese by Ronald Woan @ flickr

An old remedy for headaches, meanwhile, required killing a swallow on a full moon, drying the swallow, then grinding it into a medicine — a rather elaborate ritual when nibbling on willow bark would do.

Tate’s chapter on Wrynecks, a bird unfamiliar to me, taught me that the genus’s scientific name (Jynx) is the origin of the familiar word, jinx. This holds up. Both the OED and Merriam-Webster attribute the origin of the word jinx to folklore surrounding the genus.

Eurasian Wryneck
Eurasian Wryneck (Jynx torquilla) captured at Borit, Gojal, Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan with Canon EOS 7D Mark II

I also learned of the rich Christian folklore surrounding the bird, of which I was entirely unaware. Two species — the European Robin (not a thrush like the robins of the Americas, but a flycatcher) and swallows — were held in particularly high esteem for having provided aid to Jesus during the Crucifixion. The red of Robin Redbreast was believed to be a drop of Jesus’s blood that the bird carries on its chest. (A sort of follow-up legend, which Tate doesn’t describe, has Merlins, a falcon, capturing robins and keeping them captive during cold winter nights. Their red breasts, apparently, would warm the falcons.)

Birds were also believed to have access to magical stones and herbs. People could access them by tricking the birds into retrieving one. This often involved an act of cruelty — injuring or blinding a young bird — so the parent would retrieve the stone or herb in question. Then, when the adult bird returns to the nest, it’s fooled again — a red blanket is put under the bird’s tree, simulating a fire. The bird, in a rush to put out the fire, then would drop the stone or herb to the deceitful human.

Swallows, for instance, could retrieve stones that cure blindness. Tate writes,

If you wanted to obtain the pebble for yourself, you first had to blind the nestlings of a pair of swallows, so that the females would fly off to get the magic stone and touch their nestlings’ eyes with it in order to restore their sight. Then you had to place a red cloth beneath the nest, so that the swallow would drop the stone on to it, believing that she was dropping it into a fire.

Flights of Fancy, 2007, p. 140

Flights of Fancy is, definitely, Eurocentric, and many reviewers of the book note this. Most single volume field guides are provincial in nature, by necessity — birds are too global and diverse a kingdom to be otherwise.

The book’s failing is less in its focus, though, but in its subtitle, which promises more than it offers. This is European birds in European myths, legends, and superstitions. Tate tends only to invoke beliefs from Asia and the western hemisphere when they’re largely resonate with the European myths. This allows Tate to document the surprising coincidence of beliefs around global genera of birds, such as Cranes (Grus).

Bird Song #4: Dr. Dog Shoots the Whip-poor-will in “Lonesome”

One of the most surprising references to a Whip-poor-will appears on the opening track, “Lonesome,” of the rock band Dr. Dog’s 2012 album, Be the Void. Pitchfork calls this track a “postscript to Hank Williams’ immortal ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’ (not, sadly, written from the whippoorwills’ perspective).”

It’s a jaunty track indeed. And it hurries to its violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which prohibits the killing of migratory birds like the Whip-poor-will. After opening with the song’s chorus, we get to the shooting.

What does it take to be lonesome?
Nothing at all
What does it take to be lonesome?
Nothing at all

My thoughts are wicked and rotten
My goat don't wanna be gotten
And I had my fill of the Whip-poor-will
When he broke into song I shot him
Leave me alone

Why shoot a Whip-poor-will (figuratively, of course)? In part, the act fits the two underlying themes of the song.

The loneliness of lonesomeness. What does it take to be lonesome? Literally, as Dr. Dog’s singer Scott McMicken sings, “nothing at all.” Our human lonesomeness is most itself when it is unadorned by others who sympathize, even if that other is a persistent Whip-poor-will.

Leave Me Alone. Another theme of the song, which also motivates the shooting, is McMicken’s demands that others leave him alone. Not only is lonesomeness most itself with nothing at all, but, here, it craves this state. I get it, too. There is virtue, a wisdom, and comfort, even, in loneliness. And McMicken doesn’t want others’ easy symbols of their own loneliness — later verses invoke trains and moons — to intrude.

I suspect there’s more to it than this. The Whip-poor-will’s lonesomeness is now, dare I say, a bit cliché. It’s an easy image to grab, thanks to Hank Williams’s singular lonesomeness. That “Will” rhymes with other basic words further waters down the image. (Perhaps rhyme the scientific name instead, Antrostomus vociferus?) I suspect this is why McMicken sings that he’s had his fill of the bird. It’s too much with us in derivative songs about the lonesome. But of course McMicken attempts to go further. By shooting the lonesome Whip-poor-will and, in later verses, by snubbing his nose at a train and mocking the moon, McMicken swerves on the clichés.

But perhaps there’s one thing McMicken doesn’t know about the folklore surrounding Whip-poor-wills. He’s not the first to symbolically kill one. In Marjorie Tallman’s 1959 book, Dictionary of American Folklore, we learn that

to avoid the tragedy that might come if a bird is heard near the home, … one should point a finger at it, as if attempting to kill it symbolically. This protection is supposed to help even if the bird is not seen.

Featured Photo by Katie Moum on Unsplash

Why are they called nightjars?

Somehow, most birders can better explain why nightjars, like the Whip-poor-will or Common Poorwill, are called “goatsuckers” than “nightjars.” This is so even though “Nightjar” is the widely accepted term for the birds, at least in the U.S.

Goatsucker, after all, is easy enough: Europeans, like Aristotle, once believed that the European Nightjars suckled goats at nights, blinding the mammals.

The “night” in “nightjar” is easy enough, too. Nightjars and nighthawks are mostly crepuscular and, to a lesser extent, nocturnal birds. They’re most active, singing and feeding, at dawn, dusk, and the hours in between.

But why “jar?” Nightjars have lived under other, similarly confounding names: “eve-jar” and “eve-churr.”

As with much of the symbolism surrounding the bird, the word comes back to their song. The word “jar” (and “churr”) to refers to sounds.1, 2

“Churr” is more narrowly related to sounds bird are credited with making — trilling, most notably. The word itself also has, to my ears, an aural quality. A churr sounds to me like the sound of an animal churring.

“Jar,” however, has all sorts of notes of meaning. It can just refer to a sound. But it can also refer to a “harsh inharmonious” combination of sounds. This description of the Nightjar’s sound makes more sense when applied to the European Nightjar, which sings more like a trilling insect or a haunted door than does the Whip-poor-will (which sings more like a country-folk singer).

“Jar” can also refer to the tick of a clock. It refers, too, to a quivering or grating sound.

And then there are the meanings that carry the human psyche with them. We can find a sound, a movement, another, a disagreement, or the world itself jarring.

As a verb, the word can refer to the act of making a grating sound. It can mean to cause something — our teeth, our nerves — to vibrate, uncomfortably or painfully.

Many of these meanings to “jar” are newer than the name “Nigthjar.” And yet some of the folklore surrounding the bird — their assaults of domestic animals, the omens of death they were understood to bring — are suggestive of the multiple meanings of “jar.”

The “Nightjar” is a jar for the sounds it makes — its trilling song. But the song itself might be jarring, an omen of impending death. Or the song may sound like the tick of a clock — there were some who believed that the number of times the Whip-poor-will repeats its song is a measure of the number of years to the listener’s death.

Even today, when the Nightjar’s song may mean only our lonesomeness or our nostalgia for a lost world, we remain jarred by the jar of a Nightjar.

Another Thought

Birders refer to “owling” to describe the act of going out at night to look for or survey for owls. Far less commonly used is the word “night-jarring.” I’ve never heard a birder use this verb, in fact. And the few written references I’ve seen to it — (in, admittedly, thirty seconds of investigating it) — refer more to the jarring nature of the encounter with night-jars than the act of seeking encounters with nightjars.

Perhaps we ought to bring this word into the field, to mean the act of seeking encounters with or surveying nightjars. And, still, the ambivalence will follow us: we jar the night as we seek its birds, the night jars us, and the nightjars, too, does both.


  1. “jar, n.1.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2022. Web. 10 August 2022.
  2. “churr, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2022. Web. 10 August 2022.

Featured Image, an engraving from George Pope Morris’s The Whip-poor-will (1846)

The Truth about Goatsuckers? On the world’s most infamous bird name.

Nightjars and nighthawks are often called “goatsuckers.” This is an ancient name, based on folklore, legends, and half-truths. Here’s the origin story of the Goatsucker.

Nightjars and nighthawks are often called “goatsuckers.” This is an ancient name, based on folklore and legends. Here’s the origin story of the Goatsucker.

Continue reading “The Truth about Goatsuckers? On the world’s most infamous bird name.”

Let's stay in touch

Sign up to receive updates and sneak peeks from my upcoming book on Whip-poor-wills.

By subscribing you agree with our Privacy Policy