Columns, The Outside Story

Whip-poor-will Haunts Grow Quiet

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WHITE RIVER JUNCTION – During spring and summer nights, the relentless chanting of  whip-poor-willwhip-poor-will, was once heard throughout the Northeast; however, many of the Eastern Whip-poor-will’s former haunts have grown quiet, as abandoned farmland reverts to forest and development encroaches on dry woods with open understories.

Eastern Whip-Poor Will

The Eastern Whip-poor-will is a nocturnal, aerial insectivore found in the eastern United States and into Canada. Though whip-poor-wills are most commonly heard calling at dawn and dusk, they will forage and call on calm, clear nights when the moon is at least half full. Becoming active roughly half an hour after sunset, these birds fly silently out of forests with little or no underbrush into open areas, such as pastures, in search of insects. More than half of their diet consists of moths, though they are also known to eat beetles, ants, and wasps.

During the day, whip-poor-wills roost on the ground or on low-lying branches. Whip-poor-wills do not build nests. The female lays two eggs on the forest floor, usually in a shady, well-drained patch of ground amidst leaf litter. The eggs, chicks, and adults are well camouflaged, affording them some protection from predation.

Whip-poor-wills breed from Saskatchewan to the Maritimes, down the eastern seaboard to northern Georgia, then west to Kansas and into Minnesota. They are considered medium-distance migrants and arrive on their breeding grounds in March, then leave in September to  overwinter in the southeastern U.S. and Central America.

The species was listed as Threatened in Vermont in 2011, following decades of population decline possibly stemming from forest maturation, development, loss of suitable edge habitat, and predation from cats, raccoons, and other predators associated with human settlement. Declines in large moth populations from pesticides and introduced parasitoids may also be a factor.

To better understand whip-poor-will habitat characteristics, identify important breeding locations, and obtain a more precise population estimate for Vermont, VCE is conducting surveys throughout the state.

Kent McFarland is as staff member of the Vermont Center for Ecostudies.

Kent McFarland

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