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?


5 Remarkable Spanish Bird Names Every Birder Should Know

Our names for birds reveal how we think about them. We can see ever more when we look across languages.

The names we call animals reveal how we think about other species. With birds, they can tell us what we see or hear when we encounter them. These Spanish names might just change how English language birders think about 5 familiar birds.

Eastern Meadowlark, or “Pradero Tortillaconchile”

Eastern Meadowlark, or "Pradero Tortillaconchile"
Photo by Jeffrey Hamilton on Unsplash

Meadowlark is a suitable name, at least for poetry of it. But what’s a lark to begin with? And what does our grassland bird have to do with the name’s original holder, Europe’s Skylark?

In truth, the name “Meadowlark” for the Eastern, Western, and the recently “discovered” Chihuahuan Meadowlarks, which was split from the Eastern, doesn’t tell us much. It hints at the birds’ preference for grasslands. But many sparrows–the Lark Bunting, the Lark Sparrow, the Cassin’s Sparrow–all could be fairly called a meadowlark.

And this is why I especially like the name used in Mexico for Eastern Meadowlarks. At first, the name’s not unlike the English language one. “Pradero” translates to “Prairie,” pointing toward the Meadowlarks’ preferred habitats. But the name swerves at Tortillaconchile, an onomatopoeic rendition of their song: “tortilla chile.” As with all onomatopoeic names, it’s both a bit of a stretch and, once heard, a phrase that cannot be unheard.

Spotted Towhees, or “Rascador Moteado”

Spotted Towhees, or "Rascador Moteado"
Photo by John Duncan on Unsplash

What’s a “towhee”? A large sparrow. Why’s a towhee called a towhee and not a sparrow? Because towhees make the sound “towhee.” But their call also sounds like “chewink,” another name once applied to the birds. Oh, and this only applies to the bird now called the Eastern Towhee, which gave the rest of the Pipilo genus its common name. (East coast bias…)

Throughout much of the West, the Spotted Towhee is the most common of the towhees. Here in Colorado’s suburbs, the presence of Spotted Towhees is a good indicator of a fairly healthy backyard ecosystem. They like cover, tangled shrubs, and fallen branches. Spotted is an okay descriptive, but Eastern Towhees have a few spots. Western Towhee might have worked, but there are several western towhees. Mew Towhee or Cat Towhee (like Catbird) could honor the species’ feline-like call.

In Mexico, Spotted Towhees are known as Rascador Moteado. Rascador translates to Scratcher, a description of the towhee’s method of gathering food by double-scratching the ground. Moteado means mottled, so not that different from spotted. Still, when combined with “Scratcher,” the name offers a bit more insight into the behavior and appearance of this remarkable towhee.

House Finch, or Pinzón Mexicano

House Finch, or Pinzón Mexicano, common birds across North America, were once limited to Mexico and the US west.
Photo by Jeremy Stanley on Unsplash

Today, House Finches are among the most common and widespread finch in North America. But this wasn’t always the case. Until the 1940s, House Finches were exclusively western U.S. and Mexican birds. Early in the decade, House Finches were released on Long Island, setting in motion the species’ spread throughout the continent.

The scientific name of House Finches, Haemorhous mexicanus, recalls the bird’s center of gravity in Mexico and lands now part of the US that once belonged to Mexico. (The same is true for the Prairie Falcon, Falco mexicanus.) The name for the House Finch in Mexico, Pinzón Mexicano (the Mexican Finch) reminds us of what borders mean or don’t mean to birds and how our naming practices reflect this.

Loggerhead Shrike, or Verdugo Americano

Loggerhead Shrike, or Verdugo Americano
Loggerhead Shrike by flickr user cuatrok77

Birders use the word “loggerhead” unreflexively, without much wonderment about what it means. (A disproportionately large head.) A strange word, indeed, and one that doesn’t mean a whole lot in the field.

Birders also call Loggerhead Shrikes, and Northern Shrikes as well, Butcherbirds, for how brutal these songbirds’ methods of hunting are. This is an old folk name for shrikes that’s now more of a curiosity than a common name for them. Both birds cache food, impaling live prey on thorns and barbed wire. In part, this is to ensure a consistent supply of food, particularly during winter and the breeding season. But the behavior may also be a display behavior, with male shrikes marking territories and advertising their skills in butchering.

In Mexico, the Loggerhead Shrike is known Verdugo American, or American Executioner or American Hangman. Not only is the name more evocative than Loggerhead. It also better suits these birds, whose paths through the world are marked by deaths.

Whip-poor-will, or Tapacaminos Cuerporruín 

Whip-poor-will, or Tapacaminos Cuerporruín 

It wouldn’t be a bird list without a Whip-poor-will. In most languages, the species’ name is a translation of the bird’s song. Cuerporruínm, which is used in both Spain and Mexico, combines two words: “cuerpo” and “ruín.” (I think the addition of an “r” to join the two words is meant to replicate the bird’s trill, which is particularly pronounced in the Mexican Whip-poor-will (Antrostomus arizonae).)

As a translation of the species’ song, “Cuerporruín” is as effective of an imitation as “Whip-poor-will.” The name is also more evocative, translating to Despicable (or Contemptible, or Mean, or Vicious) Body.

But it’s not just Cuerporruín that enriches the Whip-poor-will. Tapacaminos is an alternative to the European and English language names for the Whip-poor-will’s family: Goatsuckers (e.g., Chotacabras, in Spain) and Nightjars. Both names are famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective). But neither is suitable. Goatsuckers is based on folklores around the bird, which had them suckling goats. Nightjar, which conjures the song of Europe’s nightjar, isn’t as suitable to the more melodious North American jars.

In Mexico, the name is used for three other Nightjars that are also present in the US: the Common Poorwill, the Mexican Whip-poor-will, and the Chuck Will’s Widow. The name combines two words: “tapa” and “caminos.” It translates to Trail Topper or Road Topper. A fitting name for the Nightjars like Whip-poor-wills and Poorwills, who will often hunt from the ground at the trail and roadsides that cut through their habitats.

10 Strange and Surprising Cultural References to Whip-poor-wills

Hogwart’s had Hedwig. The Seven Kingdoms had ravens. Whip-poor-wills are everywhere, but the cultural niches they occupy are far weirder.

Birds are real. And everywhere. Three-quarters of the U.S.’s independent coffee shops display photographs of birds, usually cardinals or Black-capped Chickadees. Every epic film or television show eventually pans to ominous flocks of crows or ravens. (Fake facts, both.) If you go birding in the right cultural niches, you’ll also find Whip-poor-wills.

10. Zelda – Breath of the Wild (2017)

As a kid of the 80s and 90s, it warms my heart that the 2017 version of The Legend of Zelda, entitled Breath of the Wild, features the call of the Whip-poor-will. This isn’t a version of the call, but the call itself. And always from some hidden perch, out of view. Perfect.

9. The Barton Bedtime Stories – Whisk Whip-poor-will (1920s)

Whisk the Whip-poor-will, from the August 20, 1921, story "Whisk, the Bird Detective"

Before Disney and its interminable cast of animal characters came along, The Barton Bedtime Stories entertained children from Boston to Sacramento. A weekly story that ran in the nation’s newspapers, the Stories features a cast of real birds doing unreal things.

Whisk Whip-poor-will was among them. Apparently, there was a time when the Whip-poor-will was well enough known that a syndicated children’s story could prominently feature the species to dramatic effect.

The summer of 1921 was especially challenging for Whisk, who floated down a river, took a tumble with ducks, and had run-ins with toads and minks. I’m left wondering what might have been had Mickey Mouse, introduced later in the 1920s, had a Whip-poor-will for a companion.

In the late 1930s, a new children’s series by Thornton Burgess‘ similarly populated children’s imagination with birds, including Boomer the Nighthawk and Whip-poor-will.

8. Bert Goetz – The Whip-poor-will Swoop (1889)

Buffalo Morning Express - Goetz and the Whip-poor-will Swoop
Buffalo Morning Express – April 11, 1889

A professional baseball player in the late-1800s, Bert Goetz is something of an enigma. An 1889 article in the Buffalo Morning Express lists his name as “Charles Goetz.” Modern sources list it as “George Burt Goetz.” His nickname was either “The Greencastle Giant” or “The Whip-poor-will Swoop.” The latter was also a name he gave for a “zig-zag” pitch he claimed to use to baffle batters.

This much is definitive, though. Goetz pitched in a single game, going 9 innings for the Baltimore Orioles in 1889. Goetz allowed 4 earned runs on 12 hits to the Louisville Colonels. He and the Whip-poor-will Swoop struck out two of the 39 batters he faced. Baltimore won in extra innings.

7. George Pope Morris – “The Whip-poor-will” (1838)

George Pope Morris‘ poem “The Whip-poor-will” transforms the bird into a specter who haunts the poem’s narrators with a question, “Why Whip Poor Will?” The poem is a bleak morality tale about the universality of sin and the absolute necessity of confession.

But use thee kindly--for my nerves,
Like thine, have penance done:
"Use every man as he deserves,
Who shall 'scape whipping?"--None!

Farewell, poor Will!--Not valueless
This lesson by thee given:
"Keep thine own counsel, and confess
Thyself alone to Heaven!"

Morris’ “The Whip-poor-will” was published widely in the Whip-poor-will’s nesting range. It appeared in newspapers across the northeast. It was also reprinted fairly extensively in collected volumes of American poetry, as well as in instructional books for schools. Perhaps a generation or more who encountered the bird would themselves be haunted by that question: Why whip poor will?

6. Boston Globe – Whippoorwill (1920s)

In the 1920s, a letter writer to the Boston Daily Globe‘s lifestyle section went by the penname Whippoorwill. Whippoorwill shared recipes (orange filling, molasses sauce, liver loaf). Writing from the mountains of New Hampshire, Whippoorwill also dispensed wisdom, including advice on curing kittens of constipation.

5. James Thurber – “The Whip-poor-will” (1941)

Originally appearing in a 1941 issue of the New Yorker, James Thurber’s short story “The Whip-poor-will” was republished in Thurber’s book My World – and Welcome to It. The story begins at 20:51.

Kept awake by an excessively loud Whip-poor-will, Mr. Kinstrey, the protagonist of James Thursber’s 1941 story, “The Whip-poor-will” descends into madness, then violence. The madness takes the form of a repetitive chanting–“Sit-down-there, Sit-down-there” opens the story–meant to mimic the Whip-poor-will’s call. For me, it strikes just a bit too close to the stuttering states in which insomnia leaves some of us.

The violence takes the form of a murder-suicide. In this, Thurber’s story is meant to conjure superstitions that link Whip-poor-wills with death. But the story is less about the omens surrounding the bird and more about toxic white masculinity. As Kinstrey descends into madness, he belittles his wife Madge and his Black domestic workers. None accepts his complaints of sleeplessness to the chanting Whip-poor-will. The reader is left with the feeling that Kinstrey believes two things. The first is that all of them are too stupid to understand his plight. The second is that none deserves to doubt him.

So Kinstrey kills them all, and then he kills himself. This sets up a shaggy dog ending, involving a brief quip between the two officers investigating the killings.

Out in back, probably in the little strip of wood there, Lennon figured, a Whip-poor-will began to call. Lennon listened a minute. “You ever hear the old people say a Whip-poor-will singing near the house means death,” he asked.

Baird grunted and got in under the wheel. “Takes more than a Whip-poor-will to cause a mess like that.”

4. Magic The Gathering – “Whippoorwill” (1994)

Magic the Gathering - Whippoorwill
Magic the Gathering – Whippoorwill

I grew up MTG adjacent, with friends and family playing the card game. So this has a bit of a full circle feel to it. The game has a card featuring, of all birds, this bird.

Designed by Douglas Schuler, Magic the Gathering’s Whippoorwill card, from the 1994 “The Dark” set, features a lovely rendition of a Nightjar. The card evokes some of the superstitions and omens long associated with the Whip-poor-will as a collector of souls.

If the Whippoorwill remains silent, the soul has not reached its reward.

3. Edward Hopper – Cape Cod Evening (1939)

Edward Hopper’s Cape Cod Evening depicts the call of a Whip-poor-will from beyond the frame.

Edward Hopper’s most well-known painting has nothing to do with Nightjars and yet it’s named after one of them. “Nighthawks” features a crew of humans at a diner. There’s not a bird in sight.

Cape Cod Evening, on the other hand, manages to depict the essence of Whip-poor-wills: invisibility. According to the National Gallery of Art, the Whip-poor-will’s call is an “implied presence” in the work. This is especially so in Hopper’s depiction of the dog. Attentive not to the humans in the scene but to something beyond the frame, the dog’s “alert stance seems a portent of some
imminent danger; and the advancing darkness of evening imparts a melancholy
mood.” The Whip-poor-will, too, portends these.

According to the painter (and Hopper’s wife) Josephine Hopper, there’s no doubt about the Whip-poor-will: “The Whipporwill is there out of sight.” This may make Hopper the only artist to paint Nighthawks without painting Nighthawks and Whip-poor-wills without painting Whip-poor-wills.

2. H. P. Lovecraft – The Dunwich Horror (1929)

Whip-poor-will, Savage Trail 2/09/20

In The Dunwich Horror, H. P. Lovecraft invokes an old New England superstition about Whip-poor-wills: they collect departed souls. But Lovecraft’s birds are as twisted as this story. They gather in great numbers, calling incessantly around the deaths of the story’s characters, Old Whateley and his grandson Wilbur Whateley.

What are the Whateleys? Something unnatural. Likewise the Whip-poor-wills. They change their behavior, even migration, as human death approaches, to ensure they’re available to call maniacally and surely collect souls.

That Hallowe’en the hill noises sounded louder than ever, and fire burned on Sentinel Hill as usual; but people paid more attention to the rhythmical screaming of vast flocks of unnaturally belated whippoorwills which seemed to be assembled near the unlighted Whateley farmhouse. After midnight their shrill notes burst into a kind of pandaemoniac cachinnation which filled all the countryside, and not until dawn did they finally quiet down. Then they vanished, hurrying southward where they were fully a month overdue. What this meant, no one could quite be certain till later. None of the country folk seemed to have died—but poor Lavinia Whateley, the twisted albino, was never seen again.

1. The Smurfs – “The Last Whippoorwill” (1986)

The Smurf‘s 1986 episode “The Last Whippoorwill” features a bird that’s clearly a Whip-poor-will-Pigeon hybrid. This imagined species coos like a pigeon and nests in a tree in ways a Whip-poor-will won’t. And sure, the Smurf’s village appears to be in a feudal Europe where Whip-poor-wills weren’t. But the bird gives the famous three note call: “Whip-poor-will,” though without the accuracy of Zelda’s birds.

Despite its ornithological shortcomings, what makes this episode remarkable is its strong conservation message. Due to poaching and egg collection, Whip-poor-wills are nearly extinct. With the species gone, insects overrun Smurf village. (Whip-poor-wills are indeed insectivores.) After consulting with Mother Nature(!), the Smurfs go on a rescue mission to recover the last Whip-poor-will egg and restore ecological balance. Along the way, they teach an unscrupulous human boy a lesson in the compassionate treatment of non-human species.

Featured image by flickr user Tom Murray. Taken on July 3, 2017 Dunstable, Ma. Some rights reserved.

“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

The Birds of Thomas Jefferson’s Garden

Did Whip-poor-wills arrive with strawberries and peas? Thomas Jefferson thought so.

There was — and still is — an extensive garden on the grounds of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. The gardens and their innovations are often celebrated as living legacies of the man himself. Of course, the truth is far more complex. African and African-American slaves constructed the gardens, worked them, and maintained their own at Monticello. For his part, Jefferson maintained detailed records of the plants grown in the garden. As can be seen in a letter he wrote to his daughter Maria in June 1790, he also kept records of the signs surrounding his plants. Some of these signs involved birds, including Whip-poor-wills.

We had not peas nor strawberries here till the 8th. day of this month. On the same day I heard the first Whip-poor-will whistle. Swallows and martins appeared here on the 21st. of April. When did they appear with you? And when had you peas, strawberries, and whip-poor-wills in Virginia? Take notice hereafter whether the whip-poor-wills always come with the strawberries and peas. 

As the letter was written in June (likely from Pennsylvania, where he lived in 1790), it would seem Jefferson heard his first Whip-poor-will rather late that year. (A half century later, Thoreau recorded calling Whip-poor-wills in Massachusetts in the first week of May.) One wonders if Jefferson wasn’t much of a birder — or if perhaps the ripening of strawberries and peas brought him outdoors, sharpened his senses, and caused him to start taking notice of the other signs of the season around him.

Maria, for her part, was too busy to note the Whip-poor-wills. In her reply to her father, she wrote,

As for the martins swallows and whippoorwills I was so taken up with my chickens that I never attended to them and therefore cannot tell you when they came…

Martin photographed by Miki Jourdan

It seems that Maria was too busy for many things. Several of Thomas’s letters of the time admonished Maria for her lack of responses. For every two or three or four letters Thomas write, Maria might offer a single one in return. The future president never missed an opportunity to remind Maria of this. He opened his June letter with these cringe-inducing words.

I have recieved your letter of May 23. which was in answer to mine of May 2. but I wrote you also on the 23d. of May, so that you still owe me an answer to that, which I hope is now on the road. In matters of correspondence as well as of money you must never be in debt.

Featured Photo by Oliver Hale on Unsplash

Hank Williams and the Most Lonesome Whip-poor-will

Hank Williams wasn’t the first to share his loneliness with a Whip-poor-will. But what did he hear? And what do we hear today?

Hank Williams’ I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry 

There’s not much to say about Hank Williams “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” Its canon. The song has been frequently covered by other country and folk performers. It’s also alluded to in still other songs, such as Dr. Dog’s “Lonesome.” Even an NFL quarterback covered it. In 1976, Pittsburgh Steeler Terry Bradshaw’s rendition peaked in the top 10 of Billboard’s country music list.

Williams’ wastes no time with his Whip-Poor-Will, which appears in the song’s opening line.

Hear that lonesome Whip-Poor-Will
He sounds to blue to fly
The midnight train is whining low
I’m so lonesome I could cry

I’ve read, but have lost the source, that Williams’ was slyly making an ornithological point here: Whip-Poor-Wills only sing while perched. I haven’t yet confirmed this, though, as Birds of the World doesn’t make note of this. On its face, the claim makes sense. After all, many birds only sing or mostly sing when perched. This is something like the “default setting” for bird songs, so much so that most field guides mention the infrequent occasions when a bird sings while in flight (“skylarking,” see the note about this for Cassin’s Sparrows).

Still, the song begs the question of why a Whip-poor-will would be so lonesome. After all, John James Audubon had a very different experience of North America’s most famous Nightjar.

 Only think, kind reader, how grateful to me must have been the cheering voice of this my only companion, when, fatigued and hungry, after a day of unremitted toil, I have planted my camp in the wilderness, as the darkness of night put a stop to my labours! 

Audubon on Whip-poor-wills
Eastern Whip-poor-will by flickr user Tom Murray

The Lonesome Whip-poor-will?

Williams wasn’t the first to describe Whip-Poor-Wills as mournful or melancholy, so there are other meanings to chase (in future posts). And there’s the sonic qualities of the song itself, whether it indeed sounds like sad music. But I lack a musical enough ear to address those without the aid of others. 

So here, I just want to address one quality of the Whip-Poor-Wills’ call: what we can imagine of the human observer who’s encounters them and hears them as lonely.

To understand the human version of this bird, I think we need to consider how the Whip-poor-will’s cry operates in ways similar to the “kigo” – or season word – of haiku. Like a haiku’s season word, the Whip-Poor-Will’s song conjures a season and the associations it carries. It is a shared symbol, shared enough that others will feel and understand what we mean when we conjure it.

In this case, the season is summer. Whip-Poor-Will only shares its range with those of us north of Mexico and Florida in late-spring, summer, and early autumn. But at the edges of that time, the bird is migratory. By contrast, summer Whip-poor-wills are established in their breeding territories. It is from there where the male will show most commitment to his song.

Summer is also a season of possibility—for us, certainly, but perhaps also for breeding birds. For many a lonesome human, like Williams’ himself, companionship and young love—sometimes actualized, but also unrequited or lost—is one of those possibilities.

Like Whip-Poor-Wills, many birds sing through the summer to establish territories and attract a mate. Aurally, many of those songs suit the activity. (Of course, all those songs suit the activity, whether joyous or mournful to us.) Robins, Finches, and Towhees take prominent perches and boldly sing. Around them, House Wrens bubble. Warblers, meanwhile, warble. These are the songs that articulate summer possibility, filling the morning with rising energies.

Not all birdsongs have this quality (to our ears). I find some of the common flycatchers—Say’s Phoebes, especially—around Denver to also have plaintive songs and calls. So why are we not as lonesome as a Phoebe?

The time of day that a Whip-Poor-Will sings enriches its power as season word. Whip-poor-wills sing at twilight. They sometimes continue deep into nights, particularly moonlit nights.

Perhaps it is only the sleepless listener, with nowhere else to be, who encounters the lonesome Whip-Poor-Will.

Many of us, too, may only hear the Whip-poor-will’s song from some great distance, through the cacophony of an eastern night. Though the song itself is unmistakable, we need to be clear of the human soundtrack—the mix of cars, televisions, phones, and voices—that simultaneously effaces the Whip-poor-will’s and disguises our loneliness. To hear the Whip-poor-will’s song, we need quiet, a quiet only available to those away from gatherings of boisterous friends and whispering others.

Perhaps it is only the one with no one else that encounters the lonesome Whip-poor-will.

So now a more complete image comes into view.

You are deep into a summer evening. The world wears an absence, except for a three-syllable song.

Whip-poor-will, Whip-poor-will, Whip-poor-will, Whip-poor-will, Whip-poor-will, Whip-poor-will.

Song of the Whip-poor-will

You lose count of the cries. But with each repetition, you project your own want, your lack, your need on a bird you imagine sings with your feeling. Why else, after all, would he persist? Why else would he need anything other than a single line unless he, too, knows an absence?

But somewhere else, there may be another. To that other, the song is not lonesomeness. That song does not even sound like the syllables we, poor mimics as we are, mimic it with.

To that other, there is only the original and, still, the intended meaning of an unnamed song.

Featured photo from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hank_Williams#/media/File:Hank_Williams_Promotional_Photo.jpg.

Bird Song #10: Whippoorwill’s “Martindale”

Colorado trio Whippoorwill took their name from a bird they heard in Texas.

Texas is a recurring theme in music referencing Whip-poor-wills, though the bird has a marginal presence in the state. It migrates through in early spring, occasionally calling as it does. (This is a post for another day.)

In Whippoorwill’s case, they heard the bird at a porch-picking party at SXSW 2013 in Austin. The timing – the second week of March – seems better for a Common Poorwill than the Eastern Whip-poor-will, according to eBird data.

But the band hasn’t only taken the bird’s name. They also reference it, in their lovely song, “Martindale.”

The song touches on fairly standard themes associated with the bird — love, loss, and loneliness, mainly. And this is particularly true in the lyric in which the bird appears.

“It was a still and silent early morning
Just outside of Martindale
You know that Whip-poor-will she cried all night
She cried to no avail.”

Whip-poor-will’s sing to attract a mate. There’s some evidence, too, that those who’ve lost a mate sing more vigorously. In “Martindale,” the singing makes no difference.

“Because the morning came anyway
Seemed the same but it all had changed
You know my daddy used to say,
‘Don’t lose trust, cause you’ll never get it back.’

“Martindale” is written by Whippoorwill’s Alysia Kraft. Visit https://www.helloiamalysiakraft.com/ for more of Kraft’s music.

Bird Song #9: Barbara Streisand’s “I’ll Tell the Man on the Street”

Barbara Streisand’s not here for Whip-poor-wills.

On her 1963 debut album, The Barbara Streisand Album, Streisand performs “I’ll Tell the Man on the Street.” The song was originally written for the 1938 musical, I Married an Angel. (The music was made into a film in 1942. Wiki it here.)

The song counters the nostalgia of the cowboy songs of the 1930s (see Bird Song #8). Instead of pining for the open plains, coyotes, and Whip-poor-wills, the song offers us a singer who rejects the natural for the urban world. Streisand sings…

I won’t tell of my love
To every little star
Or the whippoorwill
On the hill above

Instead, she’ll tell, as the title of the song makes clear, “the man on the street.” (She’ll also “give the papers proof” and “use the radio.”)

The song swerves past the Whip-poor-will, leaving it behind for more contemporary symbols of human life. Perhaps it stands as a record of when the bird would be lost — lost to the country and folk singers who got nostalgic for it, and lost to the urbanites who might never have heard it.

Featured Photo by Jason Briscoe on Unsplash

Whip-poor-wills, Country Music, and the Nostalgia of the 1930s

What did we lose when we gave up rural life for country living? For country singers of the 1930s, it was the Whip-poor-will and more…

In the early 2000s, a trio of country songs—Alan Jackson’s “I Still Like Bologna,” Vince Gill’s “Whip-poor-will River,” and Darryl Whorley’s “Back Where I Belong”—offered the nostalgic Whip-poor-will. The songs invoked the bird to symbolize a rural life missed, or preferred, to contemporary urban living.

When I wrote about this nostalgia, I wrongly assumed it was a particularly contemporary feeling. Between the suburbanization of rural areas, which began after World War II, and the Whip-poor-will’s decline in numbers since the 1960s, the bird’s song would become ever more difficult to hear. Hence, the nostalgia.

This assumption, though, was wrong.

In 1965, the country singer Hank Snow performed two songs on his album, Heartbreak Trail—”Chant of the Wanderer” and “Texas Plains”—that associate Whip-poor-wills with homesickness and nostalgia.

Both songs, in fact, were written decades prior.

“Texas Plains” was written in 1934 by Stuart Hamblen and His Covered Wagon Jubilee.

“Chant of the Wanderer” was written in 1939 by Bob Nolan for the film Texas Stampede. It was originally performed by the Western singing group, Sons of the Pioneers.

In “Texas Plains,” the Whip-poor-will appears as one reminder of a life lived on the plains of Texas. The song, too, is an explicit rejection of city life.

Down in my dreams somehow it seems
That I’m back where I belong
Just a country hick way back in the stick
Back where I was born
Cause the city lights and the city ways
Are drivin’ me insane
I want to be alone I want to be back home
Out on the Texas plains

I want to drink my java from an old tin can
While the moon comes shinin’ high
I want to hear the call of a whippoorwill
I want to hear a coyote whine
I want to feel my saddle horse between my legs
Just riding him out on the range
Just to kick him in the sides let him show
His step and pride out on the Texas plains

The association between Whip-poor-wills and rural life makes sense; the bird’s favored habitat is deep wooded areas. But the association with plains (and coyotes) is bothering me. Whip-poor-wills are present in Texas, yes, but they’re rare breeder (and, so, a limited singer) outside Texas’ mountains. The lyric, then, strikes me as a combination of images that would resonate with audiences but that, from a natural history perspective, don’t make a lot of sense.

I feel similar things about “Chant of the Wanderer.” But the reference to the Whip-poor-will is more ambiguous and cryptic.

Take a look at the sky where the whippoorwill trills
And the mountains so high where the cataract spills
Take a look at the falls and the rippling rills
Hear the wanderlust call of the whispering hills
(The rippling rills, the cataract spills, the whippoorwill trills)
Loh-oooh (the rippling rills, the cataract spills, the whippoorwill trills)
Loh-oooh (the rippling rills, the cataract spills, the whippoorwill trills)

Let me live on the range where the tumbleweeds grow
Let the silver sands change where the prairie winds blow
Let the wanderer sing where the wanderers go
Let the melody ring, for he’s happy I know
(The wanderers go, the prairie winds blow, the tumbleweeds grow)
Loh-oooh (the wanderers go, the prairie winds blow, the tumbleweeds grow)
Loh-oooh (the wanderers go, the prairie winds blow, the tumbleweeds grow)

It’s not clear to me how the Whip-poor-will fits into the “range,” “silver sands,” “prairie winds,” and “tumbleweed” of the song’s second verse, which conveys the sort of land the wanderer wants to live on. Is he leaving the falls, rills, hills, and Whip-poor-will trills for the prairie? Or is this one idealized place? Again, if the latter, the Whip-poor-will might not find itself at ease among tumbleweed, though CO’s Common Poorwill could. (That “Chant of the Wanderer” was written by Bob Nolan, a Canadian-born, New England schooled, then Arizonian schooled, Los Angelite, adds further intrigue to all of this.)

I want to think on nostalgia and homesickness more. There are lingering questions here — when these emotions entered everyday use, whether the Whip-poor-will here has already become a generalized symbol of rural life, how authenticity intersects with expressions of nostalgia and homesickness for rural life.

To the OED

Featured Photo by Melanie Mauer on Unsplash

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