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?


“The Night Side of the Woods”: Thoreau’s Whip-poor-will

For Henry David Thoreau, a Whip-poor-will’s call conjured a world we were already losing.

Prior to the 1950s, Americans interpreted the spring arrival of Whip-poor-wills as a sign and not always a welcome one. The birds foretold life and love, yes, but also illness and death. Those more dependent on the earth found something else: a message about impending frosts, storms, and ripened fruits.

After World War II, the Whip-poor-wills had all but disappeared from American consciousness. Sure, we saw a dramatic increase in roads, farms, clubs, and camps named after the bird. But the real thing? It called from ever decreasing patches of woods, often out of earshot of an increasingly indoor and alienated human species.

That is one story of how Whip-poor-wills came to inhabit only the wild edges of America. Another begins earlier by a century or more.

Tuesday, June 10, 1851, was “a beautiful summer night, not too warm, moon not quite full, after two or three rainy days.” The writer of these words, Henry David Thoreau, used the evening to walk to Fairhaven, Massachusetts, by railroad.

As he walked, he found himself farther from towns and his worry that “there would be too much white light, like the pale remains of daylight” on his walk. But he walked deeper into the night and, he writes simply, “it was better.” He encountered Whip-poor-wills and fireflies in meadows, and Nighthawks booming late in the evening.

Deeper into the night, Thoreau encountered fireflies and Whip-poor-wills in a meadow.
Photo by Tony Phan on Unsplash

Thoreau recognized the latter is a rare occurrence, indeed, writing,

I hear the nighthawks uttering their squeaking notes high in the air now at nine o’clock p. m., and occasionally—what I do not remember to have heard so late—their booming note.

Nighthawks are active at twilight; crepuscular birds, these are. It is a truism of their species accounts that they are very rarely active at night and, when they are, it’s usually to hunt insects drawn to artificial light. Perhaps Thoreau misjudged the time? Or perhaps the Nighthawks had been forced down the previous “two or three days” of rain and were making up for lost time.

As for the Whip-poor-wills, Thoreau recognized a broader story in their song. Here was not just natural history, but human history and culture.

The whip-poor-will suggests how wide asunder [are] the woods and the town. Its note is very rarely heard by those who live on the street, and then it is thought to be of ill omen. Only the dwellers on the outskirts of the village hear it occasionally. It sometimes comes into their yards. But go into the woods in a warm night at this season, and it is the prevailing sound. I hear now five or six at once. It is no more of ill omen therefore here than the night and the moonlight are. It is a bird not only of the woods, but of the night side of the woods.

Off hand, Thoreau suggests a tantalizing hypothesis: that the folklore and superstition surrounding the birds matured as everyday encounters with the real birds decreased. Americans once had an intimacy and knowledge of Nightjars born from familiarity. Thoreau is suggesting that, absent this, an unease and anxiety with the night side of things crept in.

In the next passage of his journal, Thoreau further recognized that the aural life of America was rapidly changing: “New beings have usurped the air we breathe, rounding Nature, filling her crevices with sound.”

I’m struck by an irony, as I type this, that I have written this entry with headphones on, a decade-old album filling Nature’s crevices with sound. Outside, this winter, are finches and sparrows, the rustle of towhees in the chokecherry thicket that edges my yard, and somewhere the trill of waxwings.

So to Thoreau’s words, return: “To sleep where you may hear the whip-poor-will in your dreams!”

What does the year’s first Whip-poor-will mean?

The year’s first Whip-poor-will has been an omen of many things: life, love, and death. For one Alabama man, it meant a haircut.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, American newspapers often carried reporting on the arrival of Whip-poor-wills to the U.S. The species’ return to country had long been a sign, to be interpreted by those who encountered it.

Arriving at the turn of spring, Whip-poor-wills portended the last frost, the ripening of vegetables and fruits, the blooming of certain flowers, and, through the Great Plains, the likelihood of just one final winter storm (the “Whippoorwill Storm”).

For some listeners, the Whip-poor-will meant even more. The first call could be counted. How many times did the bird sing its name? That tally could mean the number of years to marriage. Or death.

For one man, the return of Whip-poor-wills meant something more prosaic: a haircut. In mid-April, 1941, Rufus Huey (“Uncle Rip”) Griggs of Fort Payne, Alabama, heard a Whip-poor-will “holler,” according to an Associated Press report that I found in the Hartford Courant.

With that, spring arrived and Griggs’ had his bi-annual haircut. (The second occurring when it was time to make syrup from the maples in autumn.)

The AP’s article ran widely, appearing in newspapers in at least ten states, according to my newspapers.com search.

Within a decade, Whip-poor-wills had largely retreated from public consciousness. As Americans moved into cities and suburbs, “developing” rural areas along the way, everyday encounters with Whip-poor-wills and birds more generally diminished in frequency and importance. No more would we wait, anxiously, for a Nightjar to sing us our fate.

I await 2023’s first Nightjar. Here in Colorado, Poorwills arrive by early May. Nighthawks just a few weeks later. Now I just need corresponding rituals.

Featured Photo by Kadir Celep 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).

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.”

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