I get asked a lot of bird questions. Somewhere in the top 10 is this one: “Does Maine still have whip-poor-wills?”
It’s true that we don’t have as many whip-poor-wills as we once did. Nobody does. It was one of the birds monitored during a North American Breeding Bird survey between 1966 and 2015. During that period, 75 percent of whip-poor-wills disappeared.
As so often happens, habitat loss is one probable cause. Whip-poor-wills nest on the ground, where their cryptic coloration makes them impossible to see in the leaf litter. They don’t build a nest. The female just pops out a couple of leaf-colored eggs onto leaf-colored leaves. By necessity, the ground must remain dry during incubation, so whip-poor-wills are dependent on well-drained soil. That kind of soil makes for good house lots. Land development gobbled up many acres that once belonged to whip-poor-wills.
Simple fire suppression also reduces whip-poor-will habitat. A thick understory prevents sunlight from drying the top surface of the forest edges. Whip-poor-wills can’t nest there. During Maine’s more agricultural past, the birds did well around farms, but many of those fields have reverted to woods or become subdivisions.
Thus, the amount of suitable habitat for whip-poor-wills has shrunk. Fortunately, Maine has one factor in its favor: glaciations. During the last Ice Age, glaciers scoured our state and deposited sand and gravel from the mountains to the sea. Wherever this well-drained soil remains, there you might find whip-poor-wills.
A large expanse of glacial deposits stretches from Katahdin to the Down East coast. Some of the ridges, called eskers, are big enough to have names. The Whalesback on Route 9 in Aurora is famous. The Horseback along the Stud Mill Road east of Milford is another. Because of that glacial till, the Stud Mill Road will reverberate with whip-poor-will vocalizations for the next month. On a predawn drive, you might hear the first before reaching the chip mill in Costigan. The din becomes truly loud near the Maine Youth Fish and Game Association camp on Pickerel Pond.
And they are loud. I have a long-suffering friend in Virginia who was plagued by a whip-poor-will that sang all night above his bedroom window. One evening, I got a call from him, asking if it was legal to shoot them. It isn’t.
Whip-poor-wills sometimes keep campers awake at Abol Bridge on the Golden Road. They’re noteworthy in southern Maine on the Kennebunk Plains. They’re in Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge in Baring. They’re spread across the Wildlands of the Great Pond Mountain Conservation Trust in Orland. In fact, the Wildlands are so habitat-rich, a southern relative of the whip-poor-will showed up there last year — a chuck-will’s-widow. Both birds are members of the nightjar family, and both get their names from the calls they make.
There are nearly 90 species of nightjar in the world. They are characterized by long, maneuverable wings that allow them to acrobatically chase insects at dawn and dusk. Bristles around their gaping bills increase their chances of snagging a bug in the air. Nightjars typically roost during the day, counting on their mottled gray-brown plumage to hide them from predators. Older guidebooks may also refer to nightjars as goatsuckers, a name resulting from an ancient myth that nightjars suckle milk from goats. It’s a superstition that goes back at least as far as Aristotle.
The common nighthawk is the most widespread nightjar seen in Maine. It tends to feed high in the sky, calling loudly, making it easy to see. Whip-poor-wills feed closer to the ground and are much more discreet about calling attention to themselves. The low-feeding behavior likely contributed to their decline, because they are sometimes hit by cars. There’s also less food available nowadays. With the increased use of pesticides and the draining of wetlands, many insectivore species are showing significant declines.
The whip-poor-will calls started earlier this month, and they will continue into June. About a week after the first brood hatches, their father will take over rearing the two chicks while the female starts another brood. A study in Ontario revealed that the birds time their nesting to coincide with lunar phases. Chicks hatch as the moon waxes, giving the parents more light to hunt by while feeding ravenous youngsters. By the time the moon wanes, the chicks have molted into the camouflaged plumage that will keep them safer. Meanwhile, as this is all going on, the male keeps up his nightly calling to defend his territory.
So, yes, we still have whip-poor-wills.
Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.