Why Whip Poor Will? – Part I

For birders today, “Whip-poor-will,” the bird’s song and name, may land on our ears as a single, three syllable word. But the phrase is, in fact, a coherent, but brutal, sentence: Whip Poor Will. As in, administer a whipping to an unfortunate person named Will. Why would a night bird carry an association with corporal punishment? And what are the cultural legacies of this naming?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first known reference to the “Whip-poor-will” dates to 1709. That year, the English naturalist John Lawson published A New Voyage to the Carolinas, in which he documented the regions many bird species. Of the Whip-poor-will (then “Whippoo-Will”), Lawson wrote

Whippoo-Will, so nam’d, because it makes those Words exactly. They are the Bigness of a Thrush, and call their Note under a Bush, on the Ground, hard to be seen, though you hear them never so plain. They are more plentiful in Virginia, than with us in Carolina;

In truth, Whip-poor-wills don’t make those words exactly. Their English-language name took on the more precise enunciation of “poor,” rather than “poo.” And other spellings exist, which suggest slightly different intonations of the Whip-poor-wills’s song, depending on the native language of the human doing the naming. The OED, for instance, includes “Whipperwill,” “Wipperwill,” and “wippervill.”

Of course, the bird does not utter any of these phrases. They are, instead, approximations of the bird’s songs. Or, more accurately, translations of an animal language into various human ones.

In 1771, the Finnish naturalist Pehr Kalm recognized this of the name. In Volume 2 of Travels into North America, Kalm describes the Whip-poor-will at length. In the passage I’ve excerpted below, he reflects on the name and the bird’s song. I’ve bolded key sentences for my purposes here.

The Swedes give the name of Whipperiwill and the English that of Whip-poor- will to a kind of nocturnal bird whose voice is heard in North America almost throughout the whole night. Catesby and Edwards both have described and figured it. Dr Linnæus calls it a variety of the Caprimulgus Europæus of Goat sucker: its shape, colour, size, and other qualities, make it difficult to distinguish them from each other. But the peculiar note of the American one distinguishes it from the European one and from all other birds : it is not found here during winter but returns with the beginning of summer. I heard it to day for the first time and many other people said that they had not heard it before this summer; its English and Swedish name is taken from its note; but accurately speaking it does not call Whipperiwill nor Whip-poor-will but rather Whipperiwhip so that the first and last syllables are accented and the intermediate ones but slightly pronounced. The English change the call of this bird into Whip-poor-will that it may have some kind of signification.

But even Kalm’s Whipperiwhip, which preserves the syllable “whip,” is a stretch. Granted, my ears are among the least musical I know: but I do not think the first syllable of the Whip-poor-will’s song must be “Whip.” (Of course it need not be this word. The Whip-poor-will’s language is not that of the colonizers who met it so many generations after the bird first learned its song.)

Still, Kalm’s insight about English naming practices is critical here. In naming the bird “Whip-poor-will,” the English sought “some kind of signification.” They transformed what they heard the bird sing into a three syllable phrase, and that phrase had a coherence. Out of the bird’s song, they created a sentence and one that describes an act of violence, the whipping of a Will. So we must wonder: why whip poor Will?

On Whipping, Briefly

To answer this question, we have to leave the world of birds for the world of criminology, discipline, and punishment.

Whipping was not unfamiliar to the English, nor, according to the political scientist Darius Rejali, any society in which “humans depended on the strength of animals for transportation and power.”1 The history of whipping, in other words, is one that reflects the relationship of dominance between the human species and non-human species.

This history also reflects relationships of dominance between people. For a time, the British outfitted their princes with “whipping-boys,” who would suffer the punishment for the offences of the royals.2 Whipping and flogging, meanwhile, were also standard punishments in the British army, navy, and colonies. In another example of the animal world and British violence coinciding, among the British’s most notorious whips was the “cat-o’-nine-tails.”3

USS Constitution Museum, CC BY 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The English brought these practices with them to the Americas. In Crime and Punishment in American History, the historian Lawrence Friedman describes whipping as “an extremely common punishment throughout the colonies, especially for servants and slaves.”4

Friedman documents whipping for crimes that, by modern standards, hardly seem crimes at all – idle walking on the Sabbath and running away from home, for instance. These were offenses to the moral life of the community or to social order. They were often victimless crimes (if we can call them crimes at all). “The courts,” Friedman writes, “enforced discipline. In a way, it was a crime just to be a bad citizen: not to conform to standards of good virtue and respectability.”5

Corporal punishment, generally, and whipping, more specifically, appear so woven into the social, legal, and cultural fabric of the British colonies that they could imagine a bird singing of it.

In other words, the European encounters with the Whip-poor-will were shaped by the legal and social practices of the time, just as they were shaped by pre-existing assumptions about their continent’s own Goatsucker.

This is the first of two blogs on the “Whip” in “Whip-poor-wills” name. The second addresses cultural legacies of this naming.


  1. Rejali, Darius. Torture and Democracy. Princeton University Press, 2007. p. 270.
  2. “whipping-boy, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2022. Web. 11 August 2022.

    “whipping boy.” Useful Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, Martin Manser, 1st edition, 2018. Credo Reference. Accessed 11 Aug. 2022.
  3. Rejali, Darius. Torture and Democracy. Princeton University Press, 2007. p. 270.
  4. Friedman, Lawrence Meir. Crime and Punishment In American History.  New York: Basic Books, 1993, page 37.
  5. Friedman, Lawrence Meir. Crime and Punishment In American History.  New York: Basic Books, 1993, page 38.

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.

In the Field #1: Common Nighthawks

On Friday night (August 12), a group of four or five Common Nighthawks (Chordeiles minor) joined a few swallows in feeding over my home and neighborhood. It’s always something when this happens — the birds flying relatively low, low enough to get good views (but not low enough for good photos).

The visit likely wasn’t a coincidence. Soon after the birds left, I spotted a few flying insects in my yard. They seem to be one of the nighthawks favored late-summer prey, flying ants, though I’m still working to confirm my tentative i.d.

According to the wonderful resource, Birds of the World (subscription required), a 1940 study of the stomach contents of 87 Nighthawks found that flying ants constituted about 25% of the mass of what the birds ate. Flying ants apparently emerge in late summer and, so, are a critical food source for migrating Nighthawks, not unlike late blooms (and feeders full of sugar water) are for migrating hummingbirds.

We’re in the early days of the Common Nighthawks’ southward migration. In past years, I’ve seen them in great numbers (for a suburban environment) in my neighborhood, encountering flocks of a dozen or two or three feeding over area parks. Here’s hoping this year brings the same.

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

Alan Jackson, Vince Gill, and the Nostalgic Whip-poor-will

Whip-poor-will numbers have declined markedly over the past several decades. Country singers have noticed. A trio of songs released in the early 2000s remember the lost world of Whip-poor-wills.

While the lonesome Whip-poor-will gets most of the attention, we’ve created another version of the bird. The nostalgic Whip-poor-will, perhaps first offered in the 1950s hit “Mockin’ Bird Hill,” shows strongly in the early 2000s in a trio of songs: Darryl Whorley’s “Back Where I Belong” (2002), Vince Gill’s “Whippoorwill River” (2003), and Alan Jackson’s “I Still Like Bologna” (2008).

In Whorley’s and Jackson’s songs, the nostalgia is put plainly. Whorley’s Whip-poor-will calls him home to pastoral world he left behind for city living.

Big city nights and lights surround me
Feels like a prison to my soul
I can hear a Whippoorwill calling me home
Back where I belong

Jackson, meanwhile, lists the Whip-poor-will as one of many simple things — like the bologna in the song’s title — that he prefers to modern developments.

But I still
Like bologna
On white bread
Now and then
And the sound
Of a whippoorwill
Down a country road
The grass between my toes
And that sunset sinking low
And a good woman's love
To hold me close

Vince Gill’s “Whippoorwill River” is less direct in both its invocation of the bird and in its nostalgia. The song references what appears to be a fictional river — or perhaps a local name for a river known by something else on Google Maps. (There are a few Whip-poor-will Creeks, but I’ve not yet found a Whippoorwill River.) The song celebrates a life lived simply, among the continuities of family and land. Gill sings of fishing the river with his father, running ponies there with the girl who’d become his wife, then fishing the river with his own son.

Yeah, he loves to go fishing on Whippoorwill River
And catch him a big one or two
He's learning about life
And its simple pleasures
And making a memory or two.

“Whippoorwill River” seems like the place to which Whorley’s Whip-poor-will calls him.

The association between Whip-poor-will and a lost world is not accidental. Whip-poor-wills breed in forests with clear understories, not the urban and suburban habitats that many Americans now live in.

Nor is this sense of lose uniquely human. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Whip-poor-will populations have decreased by about 2% annually since 1966. This reflects a decline of about 60% over the past sixty years. Like Whorley, the birds are losing their homes — wooded spaces with understories — owing to the “development” of these habitats into suburban spaces and for agriculture.

And while I’m hesitant to attribute the uniquely human state of nostalgia to Whip-poor-wills themselves, the losses and threats that Whorley and Jackson sing of seem to apply as much to the birds as us people who sing of them.

Learn More about Nightjar Conservation at http://www.nightjars.org/.

Featured Photo by Eagan Hsu 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)

Bird Song #2: “Mockin’ Bird Hill”

It seems fitting to move from Neko Case’s “Magpie to the Morning,” which has the Whip-poor-will’s song sung by a Mockingbird, to the country song “Mockin’ Bird Hill.” Written by Vaughan Horton in 1950, “Mockin’ Bird Hill” features a Whip-poor-will singing to the song’s narrator from the aforementioned hill.

When it’s late in the evenin’ I climb up the hill
And survey all my kingdom while everything’s still
Only me and the sky and an old whippoorwill
Singing songs in the twilight on Mockin’bird Hill

Though the singer’s alone in this verse and, indeed, the rest of the song, they don’t strike me as lonely, exactly. Much of the rest of “Mockin’ Bird Hill” is a celebration of life lived humbly, in communication with birds and the land.

Got a three-cornered plow and an acre to till
And a mule that I bought for a ten-dollar bill
There's a tumble-down shack and a rusty old mill
But it's my Home Sweet Home up on Mockingbird Hill

In this regard, the song seems to foreshadow a different strand in the symbolism surrounding Whip-poor-will: the longing for a simple, rural life. I’ve noticed this theme in more contemporary references to the bird. In his 2008 song, “I Still Like Bologna,” the country singer Alan Jackson lists the Whip-poor-will with other, simple things: the aforementioned meat product, white bread, grass, and a “good woman.” He contrasts these with particularly modern things that he could live without: 500 channels, cellphones, satellite communication, and the like.

Horton recorded “Mocking Bird Hill” with his band The Pinetoppers. The song appeared in Billboard’s “Top 10 Most Played Jukebox Folk (Country and Western) Songs” in late-December, 1950. In March 1951, it entered Billboard’s top 10 list for “Country and Western Records Most Played by Folk Disk Jockeys.” The song would eventually peak at #3, and it would appear in the Top 10 for two other performers: Les Paul & Mary Ford (also in 1951) and Donna Fargo (1977).

I couldn’t get through my first listen to this song (Paul & Ford’s version), as full of treacle matter as it is. (Thank you to my friend and colleague Geoff Stacks for that word “treacle.”) The song hasn’t exactly grown on me in the 24 hours since that listen. But I think I more fully understand and appreciate its sentimentality.

Written within five years of the end of World War II and at the beginning of the suburbanization of the country, “Mockin’ Bird Hill” expresses a longing for basic, simple connections to land, nature, and bird song. It strikes me as not that dissimilar from the affirmation-rich songs of now — amid the disruptions of COVID-19, climate change, and the politics of Trump — created by musicians as stylistically diverse as Lizzo (“About Damn Time”), Arcade Fire (“Unconditional (Lookout Kid)”) and Titus Andronicus (“We’re Coming Back”).

Not every Whip-poor-will is lonesome. But the nostalgia and longing of the Whip-poor-will of “Mockin’ Bird Hill” may be no less sad.

Image Credit

Northern Mockingbird by Joshua J. Cotten (Unsplash), Mathis, TX (USA)

Bird Song #1: Neko Case’s “Magpie to the Morning”

Neko Case’s song “Magpie to the Morning” appears on Case’s 2009 album, Middle Cyclone. The song is among the most full spirited and generous bird songs I know.

Each bird that Case evokes — and there are several — is treated with generosity and tenderness. Even the vulture, a bird normally associated with greed and excess (see Rage Against the Machine’s otherwise necessary “Guerilla Radio“), has a grace and wisdom that transcends us. Case also carefully attends to her vulture to describe his posture in flight, his movement through a warm thermal, and the moment when a scent of rot yanks him from the glide.

Black hands held so high,
The vulture wheels and dives,
Something on the thermals yanked his chain,
He smelled your boring apex,
Rotting on the train tracks,
He laughed under his breath because you thought that you could outrun sorrow

But as this is a blog about nightjars, it’s the Whip-poor-will’s cameo in “Magpie to the Morning” that most interests me. Case evokes the Whip-poor-will about midway through the song. But it’s not the Whip-poor-will himself who sings his famous song, but another songster, the Northern Mockingbird, who offers it.

Mockingbird sing in the middle of the night
All his songs are stolen so he hides
He stole them out from Whip-poor-wills
And screaming car alarms
He sings them for you special
He knows you're afraid of the dark
Come on sorrow
Take your own advice
Hide under the bed
Turn out the light.

The Whip-poor-will’s song has a long history in folk, blues, and country music. So why would Case evoke an imitation of the song, putting it — “Whip-poor-will, Whip-poor-will, Whip-poor-will” — in the throat of a Mockingbird rather than the Nightjar?

I think it’s layers — layer upon layer — of borrowed meaning and emotion. The Whip-poor-will’s song has meant many things to us humans. One thing it means is lonesomeness. Case seems to be offering some of the Whip-poor-will’s loneliness tothe Mockingbird himself, singing (as the Whip-poor-will does) all night long.

But then, with the ambiguous “you” for whom the Mockingbird sings, the bird’s song again seems to become for us human-animals.

This “you” might be the Mockingbird’s mate. After all, that’s why he sings. But perhaps it’s as much us. “Magpie to the Morning” is a song about what birds and their behavior conveys to us about our species loneliness, sorrow, and grief.

And many of us, perhaps even more so than a female Mockingbird, are afraid of the dark. That Mockingbird’s song, then, becomes company through our fear. Perhaps this is why Case has the Mockingbird sing the familiar, unfamiliar song of the Whip-poor-will and the too familiar cry of a car alarm. The former offers the comfort of songs about loneliness — “Birth of the Blues” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” most notably — that evoke Whip-poor-wills. Through these songs, we remember that others, too, experience our loneliness and fear. The car alarm, meanwhile, reminds us of our presence among other humans (though perhaps it stands for both our need for co-presence and our fear of other humans).

I wonder, though, if there’s yet another meaning to the Mockingbird singing “Whip-poor-will.” The Mockingbird, here, mimics the Whip-poor-will just as generations of country, folk, and blues singers have. And for most of us, the Whip-poor-will is an obscure and rarely (if ever) encountered bird. Today, we hardly hear his song directly. Rather, we know it second-hand, in the vocalizations of other humans or, as the case may be, a Mockingbird.

Image Credits

Natasha Miller, Unsplash, Black-billed Magpie (Estes Park, Colorado, United States)

Patrice Bouchard, Unsplash, Northern Mockbird (Ontario, Canada)

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