Whip-poor-wills can open their mouths wide enough to swallow insects that are up to two inches long (Cornell University 2017).
New York's population has a wide but contracting distribution throughout the state in early-successional habitats. Its natural habitat is under threat in New York principally from habitat change (McGowan and Corwin 2008). The number of birds reported between New York's two Breeding Bird Atlases declined by 57%.
Between the 1980 and 2000 Breeding Bird Atlas in New York, there was a 57% decline in the number of blocks statewide and a 50% decline in the number of blocks with confirmed breeding (McGowan and Corwin 2008).
Like many other early successional species, this nightjar probably benefited from major land clearing for agriculture in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Declines likely began as forest succession proceeded in New York.
Reasons for population declines in New York are poorly understood. There has been some habitat loss as farmland converts to forested habitats. Some invasive plant species may create unsuitable nesting habitat along forest edges, as would fire suppression in pine barrens habitats. Industrial pollution may be a threat. Pesticide use, especially insecticides, may be detrimental to insect populations thereby decreasing whip-poor-will food supply.
Hunt (2013) suggests that management practices for New England include a combination of forest thinning and shrubland maintenance, especially in nesting and roosting areas. Open areas are also needed for foraging. Whip-poor-wills use different habitat types to meet their nesting, roosting, and foraging needs, therefore different management strategies are need for different habitats. Management at occupied sites should be avoided during the breeding season (mid-May to late-July). There should be at least two to three evening surveys starting the week before the full moon to determine occupation (Hunt 2013). Another consideration is how Lepidoptera, an important food source, are affected by management practices.
Periodic controlled burns or mechanical management are needed to maintain some natural communities for this species (e.g., pine barrens). The best management strategy is to manage the natural community, or habitat, where this species occurs. Maintaining pine barrens with their full suite of plant and animal species requires frequent (every five to ten years) disturbance to maintain open-canopy, shrub-dominated communities and to prevent succession to a closed-canopy hardwood forest (Jordan et al. 2003). Researchers have determined that "an active fire management program utilizing prescribed fire with appropriate mechanical treatments" is the preferred method (Jordan et al. 2003). Researchers have also determined that the size, type, intensity, and timing of fires (pyrodiversity) needs to be evaluated for each site to maximize benefits to the natural community and the species it supports (Jordan et al. 2003). The entire occupied habitat for a population should not be burned in a single year. For example, in places where prescribed burning is used, refugia (unburned areas) are needed for many species to ensure that any life stage can survive a fire.
Logging practices can be part of the management strategy in some areas. Clear cutting woodlots will take three to five years to provide suitable habitat for whip-poor-will, but the area tends to mature quickly to the point of not being suitable for whip-poor-wills (Hunt 2013). Strip cutting may not create areas that are large enough for whip-poor-will foraging. Forest thinning, up to 50% removal, can be beneficial. In addition, the skid and logging roads provide additional habitat by increasing the edge (Hunt 2013). Akresh and King (2016) recommend leaving some nearby closed-canopy forest if there is enough suitable habitat.
Right-of-way maintenance should involve selective tree removal rather than mowing all the vegetation in the area (Hunt 2013). In addition, management for shrubland birds could benefit whip-poor-will (Akresh and King 2016).
Little is known about dispersal of juveniles, fall departure, migration routes, physiology, and habitat requirements (Cink et al. 2017, NatureServe 2018). Additional research that may explain the reason for the declines. Suggestions include lepidoptera species delcine and displacement by chuck-will's-widow (Antrostomus carolinensis).
Whip-poor-wills are found in dry deciduous or mixed woods (Cink et al. 2017), pine barrens and barrens-like habitats, annd some shrublands. They are not usually found in the Catskill and Adirondack mountains. In general, they are not found in closed-canopy or conifer forests. They tend to nest near forest edges or in shrubby areas (Akresh and King 2016, Cink et al, 2017). Open areas are needed for foraging.
Whip-poor-wills can be found throughtout the state with higher densities in pine barrens or barrens-like habitats. They are not usually found in the Adirondacks and higher elevations of the Catskills.
During the breeding season, whip-poor-wills are found from south-central Saskatchewan east across southern Canada to Nova Scotia, south (east of Great Plains) to extreme northeastern Texas, Arkansas, northern Mississippi, north-central Alabama, South Carolina, east-central North Carolina, and Virginia (AOU 1998). During the winter months, they are found from northeastern Mexico, southern Texas, Gulf Coast, and east-central South Carolina south to Costa Rica, casually to southern California, western Panama, and Cuba (AOU 2010).
Whip-poor-wills are a medium-sized bird (22-26 cm [8.7-10.2 in]) that appears top heavy. Its head is large and flattened. The chest is stout. Eyes are large with eye lashes. The blackish throat has an outline of white that looks similar to a bib. The tapering tail of the male has two white patches while the female has two buff patches. The birds have gray and brown mottling that provides excellent camouflage on the forest floor or while perched on tree branches. They have a small bill, with a large gape, bordered by rictal bristles. Plumage does not change seasonally. Adults can be heard calling frequently after sunset and before sunrise. The song is described as its namesake, "whip-poor-will." Other calls are described as "quirt" and growls and hisses. Females typically lay two grayish white or cream colored eggs with bloches in the leaf litter. Hatchlings are orange-buff and are cryptic. Chicks are semi-precocial.
This bird is seldom seen. The continuous song is more likely to be heard.
Whip-poor-wills are noctural and call almost continuously after daylight hours. They are most active from approximately 30 minutes after sunset until it is too dark to see its prey and then again approximately 40 minutes before sunrise. When the moon is bright, they may hunt all night. They are less active on cold and rainy nights. During the day they sit on the ground or perch on low branches.
Whip-poor-wills are strict insectivores. Their diet consists of moths, beetles, grasshoppers, stoneflies, ants, bees, wasps, fireflies, and weevils. Moths seem to be an important part of their diet.
This species is rarely observed, but it is often heard after sunset or before sunrise when they are present during the breeding season from May to July. They are most active when the moon is bright.
The time of year you would expect to find Whip-poor-will active and reproducing in New York.
Antrostomus vociferus (Wilson, 1812)
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This guide was authored by: Hollie Y. Shaw
Information for this guide was last updated on: June 29, 2018
Please cite this page as:
New York Natural Heritage Program. 2021. Online Conservation Guide for Antrostomus vociferus. Available from: https://guides.nynhp.org/whip-poor-will/. Accessed September 24, 2021.