The Chuck-will's-widow and Eastern Whip-poor-will: An Odd Couple of Many Sorts

Lots of familiar birds get their names from the sounds they make. Chickadees, towhees, cuckoos, jays—each were named after an onomatopoeic translation.

But two North American birds take things a step further. Somehow, the calls of these species translated into something more specific, more poetic, more . . . bizarre than any other bird on the continent. I’m talking, of course, about the Eastern Whip-poor-will and the Chuck-will’s-widow.

I’ll leave aside the debate about whether they actually sound like they’re saying “whip poor Will” and “Chuck Will’s widow.” My take is that the Chuck-will’s-widow can sorta get away with it.

Listen: 

But the Eastern Whip-poor-will doesn’t at all sound like it wants us to beat up on anyone. 

Listen:

(The Mexican Whip-poor-will, recently elevated into a full species, sounds a bit better).

What's more interesting to me is that of all the birds named for their songs, why did these birds get such detailed, evocative mnemonics? The names are themselves little fragments of unfinished stories. Who is this Will character, and why is the bird calling for his punishment? Did he steal something (he’s poor, after all, and perhaps needed food for his family)? Is poor Will the same man as Chuck Will? Is his widow lamenting his demise after the whipping? Or, even worse, is one bird calling for Chuck to be whipped to death, and the other calling for his new widow to be chucked off some towering precipice? The horror?!

In fact, whip-poor-wills, Chuck-will’s-widows, and their kin have a history of inspiring fear. These species belong to the family Caprimulgidae, officially known as nightjars—a lovely term supposedly derived from the “'jarring' sounds made by the male when the female is brooding.”

But before they earned that title, the family Caprimulgidae had been long known as “goatsuckers.” That’s right, goatsuckers. It comes from the Latin word Caprimulgus, meaning "milker of goats" (Linnaeus was into it, apparently). According to Pliny the Elder (another cool name), in A.D. 77, the wisdom of the time was that these strange birds snuck into goat pens at night and sucked milk from their udders, causing the goats to go blind. It wasn’t true then, and it isn't true now, but it perfectly illustrates the point that these birds are all-around weirdos.

Just look at them. Chuck-will’s-widows and Eastern Whip-poor-wills are birds of the night, built with huge eyes to see in the dark and cryptic plumage to hide them during the day. They’ve got tiny little bills that open up to reveal large, gaping mouths that make it easier to gulp down insects whole.  

With all these ridiculous features, you'd think these birds would be easy to spot. Nope. During the day, Whips and Chucks will silently lurk in the leaf litter or on a tree branch, unmoving. They’re so well camouflaged that only the luckiest birders can spot them. You’ll have to wait until nightfall in spring to get a sense of just how many there are nearby, because they’ll fill the evening with their loud, sadistic songs. Eastern Whip-poor-wills breed from Missouri and North Carolina up through New England and Minnesota, while Chuck-will’s-widows breed further south, from east Texas and Florida to about the Mason-Dixon line. Whip-poor-wills love moist, leafy forests, whereas Chuck-will's widows prefer oaks, pines, and swampy edges. 

Soon, these birds may be impossible to see. Like many woodland species, Eastern Whip-poor-wills and Chuck-will’s-widows are declining: Populations are estimated to be down more than 60 percent since the 1960s, probably because of loss of proper habitat, predation by cats, and insecticides affecting their food sources. So, be sure to get out there and listen for Wills being whipped and widows being chucked before it’s too late. Only then will you be able to decide what crazy name you can give them yourself.

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