At a Glance
Often heard but seldom observed, the Whip-poor-will chants its name on summer nights in eastern woods. The song may seem to go on endlessly; a patient observer once counted 1,088 whip-poor-wills given rapidly without a break. By day, the bird sleeps on the forest floor, or on a horizontal log or branch. This bird and the Mexican Whip-poor-will of the southwest were considered to belong to the same species until recently.
All bird guide text and rangemaps adapted from Lives of North American Birds by Kenn Kaufman© 1996, used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Nightjars, Upland Ground Birds
Forests and Woodlands, Shrublands, Savannas, and Thickets
California, Eastern Canada, Florida, Great Lakes, Mid Atlantic, New England, Plains, Southeast, Southwest, Texas, Western Canada
Range & Identification
Migration & Range Maps
Many spend the winter in the southeastern states, in areas where Chuck-will's-widows are resident in summer. Others migrate south to Central America; few occur in the West Indies.
10" (25 cm). Camouflaged in mottled brown in gray. In flight, wingtips are broadly rounded, unlike the pointed wings of nighthawks. No white in wings. Corners of tail are white (male) or buff (female). Compare to Chuck-will's-widow.
About the size of a Crow, About the size of a Robin
Black, Brown, Gray, Tan, White
Long, Rounded, Square-tipped
Songs and Calls
A loud, rhythmic whip-poor-will, repeated over and over, at night.
Leafy woodlands. Breeds in rich moist woodlands, either deciduous or mixed; seems to avoid purely coniferous forest. Winter habitats are also in wooded areas.
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2. Whitish, marked with brown and gray. Incubation is by both parents (usually more by female), 19-21 days. Young: Cared for by both parents. Adults feed young by regurgitating insects. Age of young at first flight about 20 days. May raise 1 or 2 broods per year; female may lay second clutch while male is still caring for young from first brood.
Cared for by both parents. Adults feed young by regurgitating insects. Age of young at first flight about 20 days. May raise 1 or 2 broods per year; female may lay second clutch while male is still caring for young from first brood.
Forages at night, especially at dusk and dawn and on moonlit nights. Forages by flying out from a perch in a tree, or in low, continuous flight along the edges of woods and clearings; sometimes by fluttering up from the ground. Captures insects in its wide, gaping mouth and swallows them whole.
Insects. Feeds on night-flying insects, especially moths, also beetles, mosquitoes, and many others.
Nesting activity may be timed so that adults are feeding young primarily on nights when moon is more than half full, when moonlight makes foraging easier for them. Male sings at night to defend territory and to attract a mate. Courtship behavior not well known; male approaches female on ground with much head-bobbing, bowing, and sidling about. Nest site is on ground, in shady woods but often near the edge of a clearing, on open soil covered with dead leaves. No nest built, eggs laid on flat ground.
Numbers appear to have decreased over much of the east in recent decades. Reasons for the decline are not well understood, but it could reflect a general reduction in numbers of large moths and beetles.
Audubon’s scientists have used 140 million bird observations and sophisticated climate models to project how climate change will affect the range of the Eastern Whip-poor-will. Learn even more in our Audubon’s Survival By Degrees project.
Climate Threats Facing the Eastern Whip-poor-will
Choose a temperature scenario below to see which threats will affect this species as warming increases. The same climate change-driven threats that put birds at risk will affect other wildlife and people, too.