If you were born before 1960 and grew up near the woods, you can probably recall the persistent, repetitive song of the whippoorwill. Memories of this name-sayer singing for hours on end between dusk and dawn are fond and indelible. If the bird perched outside your bedroom window, the memories may not be so fond.
In 20 years here on the ridge, I've heard a whippoorwill only three times.
The first time, in 1992, remains my favorite. Emma, who was not quite three at the time, and I sat on the deck enjoying a colorful spring evening sky. Wood thrush vespers echoed in the woods.
Then, in the distance, I heard three faint, familiar notes. "Whip-poor-will!" And again, "Whip-poor-will!" For a full minute the bird sang, and I smiled. The song was too distant for Emma to hear.
After a few minutes of silence, the bird called again. It had moved closer to the house. Emma heard it and sensed my excitement. She listened carefully. Then again the bird fell silent.
More often heard than seen, whippoorwills spend the daylight hours nestled on the forest floor where their cryptically colored bodies blend in perfectly with the leaf litter, or perched lengthwise overhead on a horizontal branch.
At dusk whippoorwills come to life and earn their living by snatching moths, beetles, and other night flying insects from the air. Their huge gaping mouth, surrounded by a ring of specialized feathers called rictal bristles, becomes an efficient aerial net for capturing insects on the wing.
After a male attracts and courts a female, she lays two mottled eggs directly on the forest floor. She builds no nest. The female alone incubates the eggs for about 20 days, and 20 days later the young whippoorwills can fly and begin learning to fend for themselves.
Suddenly, the bird called again. He had come even closer. Emma began mimicking, "Whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will."
Then a scene unfolded that I'll remember forever. As I gazed in the direction of the song, a dark form sailed like a giant moth directly toward the deck. It cruised in just four feet above the ground, heading straight for the house. Perhaps the whippoorwill was hunting insects attracted to an illuminated window. As it reached the edge of the deck, it pulled up, snatched a moth from the air, turned, and flew back into the woods.
When it turned, large white patches on its fanned tail confirmed the bird was a male.
Several minutes later he called again. By now it was completely dark, and Linda and Nora had joined us on the deck.
We listened 20 minutes longer, so Emma and Nora could tune their ears to this special song of the night woods. That night we all fell asleep to the song of the whippoorwill.
So why don't we see whippoorwills more often? I wish I knew. Since the mid-1960s their population has dropped significantly. Breeding bird surveys in both Pennsylvania and West Virginia reported only a handful of confirmed nesting efforts.
The reasons for the whippoorwill's decline are unclear. Some suggest that eastern forests have become over-mature. Whippoorwills prefer open woods with scattered clearings.
Others fear pesticides have taken too heavy a toll on their diet of night flying insects, particularly large silk moths.
A third camp suspects "problems" on the wintering grounds in Latin America are to blame.
I lean toward the third explanation. Pesticides are still largely unregulated in Latin America, so the same problem that devastated U.S. populations of robins, bald eagles, peregrine falcons, ospreys, and brown pelicans back in the 1950s and 1960s, may be responsible for today's dearth of whippoorwills.
Whatever the cause, a woods without whippoorwills is like a night sky without stars. Just ask anyone who has known the song of the whippoorwill.