Whip-poor-wills in decline (from OFO News)

Whip-poor-will chasing Horrid Zale, pencil, 2009.

I’m the lead editor for the Ontario Field Ornithologists’ newsletter OFO News. Our June issue was just published. When one of the articles we’d had lined up fell through a week before the deadline, I put this piece together to take its place. I did the drawing above as accompaniment.

I’m borrowing that article to post here because we’re still without internet at home, despite my jubilant announcement of earlier. The technician was out this morning to assess the materials needed to obtain a signal, and will return next Tuesday to actually do the installation. Next Tuesday is the 21st. We moved on the 1st; that’s three weeks of internet-less-ness. I’m pretty sure that’s the longest I’ve been without internet at home since it was “invented” back in the ’90s. I’m definitely feeling it…


Despite having spent the first 20 years of my life growing up in rural Ontario, it has only been this summer that I finally heard a Whip-poor-will in this province. Historically, they were once found throughout southern Ontario, but I am too young to have known those times. My first experience with this unique and secretive species was while working as a field ornithologist in Ohio one summer. Our surveys took us into regenerating clearcuts in the wee hours of the morning, and, in several plots, as we walked in from where we parked the vehicles we would be accompanied by the emphatic, persistent, lilting calls, echoing from the forest’s edge. For me, the song of the Whip-poor-will remains a sound I firmly associate with the Appalachian foothills.

These days, here in Ontario, they are primarily a bird of “cottage country”. More often heard than seen, their distinctive voices are wedded to the image of quiet mist rising off the water’s surface in the pre-dawn light. Their population strongholds are in the patchy landscape that defines the southern edge of the Canadian Shield, the Frontenac Arch, and the Bruce Peninsula. It is in these areas that the rock barrens, alvars, regenerating forests and treed savannahs are most abundant. South of the Shield appropriate habitat is sparse. If you want to find the species west of Toronto now, your best bets are to visit the patchwork of forest tracts surrounding Long Point, Rondeau, or Pinery Provincial Parks.

Their decline has been swift and dramatic. In the 20 years between the publication of the first Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario and the second, the probability of observation for Whip-poor-wills has declined by a statistically significant, incredible 51%. From a total of 884 squares in the 1980s (24% of all squares with data), the species was detected in just 559 squares in the second (only 11% of squares with data).

Although anecdotal observations on the decline of the Whip-poor-will in Ontario are abundant among older birders and naturalists, the hard data to support these reports have been sparse. Because of the species’ crepuscular habits, they aren’t regularly picked up on the standard monitoring programs such as the Breeding Bird Survey. Neither are the regularly detected at migration monitoring stations such as Long Point Bird Observatory’s long-running program. The first report providing firm numbers illustrating their decline came with the publication of the second edition of the Atlas in 2008.


In April of this year, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) designated the Whip-poor-will with the status Threatened throughout its range in Canada, and recommended that the species be considered for official SARA (Species At Risk Act) listing. Their assessment was partially based on the new data provided by the Atlas and other similar surveys.

It isn’t clear what has caused the staggering decline in numbers, although clearly habitat loss has played a large factor. This has been squeezing the population from both directions. In the south, increased agricultural use and urbanization of the landscape have eaten away at the natural habitat the Whip-poor-will requires. In the north, marginal farmland has been allowed to lapse and regenerate, and the open habitat the birds use for foraging has gradually been filling in.

Another factor may be declines in insect populations. Very little work has been done to track insect abundance, but anecdotal evidence(such as the slimy splats on car windshields) suggests that bugs may not be as numerous as they once were even a few decades ago. This hypothesis is bolstered by the fact that some of the greatest declines in bird numbers are observed among the aerial insectivores, those that feed on the wing, including the swallows and goatsuckers. The reason for declines in insects are likewise unknown, but may be the result of habitat loss combined with increased use of pesticides.


In the United States, monitoring efforts to track populations of Whip-poor-will are being undertaken in a number of regions. One of the largest is the Northeast Nightjar Survey, originally initiated by New Hampshire Audubon in 2003 as the Whip-poor-will Project. A working group that included the US Fish and Wildlife Service, state agencies, non-governmental conservation organizations and academic institutions, was formed in 2005 and began completing surveys outside of New Hampshire as well. Its scope has continued to expand and the project now has routes from Maine to Maryland, and as far west as Wisconsin, monitoring all three nightjar species commonly found in this region.

In 2007, the Northeast Nightjar Survey partnered with Bird Studies Canada’s NatureCounts website to host and manage data, and provide an online interface for participants to submit observations. Formal surveys are not yet in place for Canadians wishing to participate. Currently, the only Whip-poor-will monitoring effort taking place in Canada is being run by Frontenac Bird Studies, a new initiative of the Migration Research Foundation intended to survey and monitor the breeding birds of the Frontenac Arch. This will be the first year of operations for their Project Whip-poor-will.

The pictures painted by these surveys aren’t likely to be very rosy, but they will help in determining the source of the problem, and devising solutions. Developing a better understanding of Whip-poor-wills, their distribution, habitat requirements, and local ecology is vital to the creation of successful long-term conservation initiatives directed toward protecting the species and reversing these declining population trends.


Author: Seabrooke

Author of Peterson Field Guide to Moths. #WriteOnCon Mastermind. Writer of action/thriller SF/F YA. Story junkie. Nature nut. Tea addict. Mother. Finding happiness in the little things. Twitter: @SeabrookeN / @SeabrookeLeckie

16 thoughts on “Whip-poor-wills in decline (from OFO News)”

  1. Wow..you are quite an artist..beautiful drawing! great article as well..though i would like to have read the numbers of Whip-poor- will were increasing!
    We spent a month parked at my sisters in NC..and it was great to hear the nightly whip-poor-will like clockwork..evening and morning calling constantly from her roof and in her front yard.
    I figured it must have a circut it covers at night as it was really almost clockwork when it showed up.

  2. What a beautiful drawing! I enjoyed the article, too. Thanks for posting it. My sympathies regarding the internet deprivation. I lost my internet connection for 2 days and felt really lost. I love how this blogging business connects us with so many folks with similar interests.

    I used to hear whip-poor-wills all summer when I was a kid in rural Michigan. We also use to hear their fellow goatsucker the nighthawks every evening when we lived in Ann Arbor. I’ve heard that since city buildings are no longer roofed with tar and gravel, the birds don’t nest on city roofs as they used to. Too bad.

  3. Never seen one myself, but I loooooove their plumage. Awesome, awesome looking birds. Great drawing too, Seab — you should post more of your work!

  4. Hello Seabrooke, you may be interested to learn that Bird Studies Canada piloted Whip-poor-will surveys this summer in the Norfolk Forest Complex Important Bird Area (IBA) in southwestern Ontario. The goal was to test monitoring protocols, for possible future expansion throughout southern Ontario. Ten routes were run this year, and an encouraging number of Whip-poor-wills were found. These pilots were funded by OMNR Species at Risk Stewardship Funding. For more information about this program, contact Debbie Badzinski, BSC’s Ontario Program Manager.

  5. That’s a beautiful drawing. I like the inclusion of its prey as well. I’ve never seen (or heard) a whippoorwill, and it’s pretty high on my most wanted list.

  6. When I was a young girl in the northern part of Kentucky, whippoorwills were numerous and sang me to sleep every night of the warm months. Sometimes, we living in pretty deep country, they would even come and sit on the doorstep. My mom used to see one from time to time but my child’s eyes were never sharp enough to pick them out.

    The whippoorwills were still there when my children were little in the 1970s. City bred, the calls frightened my boys.

    By the time my Mom died this year at 91, the birds were all gone. I mourn the birds as I mourn my mother.

  7. Beautiful, beautiful writing with so much information. Your pencil sketch is fabulous. So much talent. I heard my first whippoorwill (since I was a kid) earlier this summer in Tennessee. I loved hearing his song as the night closed in.

  8. Regarding the decline in whip-poor-will populations there can be little doubt that loss of habitat is a major factor, but I’ve always wondered if this species is impacted by our unsatiable will to stamp out all forest fires.

    This bird is well suited, in fact adapted, to survive forest fires, especially those in sandy red pine habitats. I wonder if the nature of those habitats is not altered by the lack of forest fires, perhaps changing the minute details of the habitat and impacting nesting habitat.

    Just a thoughtful wonder…..


  9. Beautiful drawing! Beautiful bird. I am always saddened to hear of declining populations of birds. I’m sure habitat loss and insecticide
    /herbicide use are to blame in part. The cold weather this spring and summer has reduced the number of flying insects and I noticed a decline in the number of swallows that daily fly about our place. There are also fewer chimney swifts in town compared to previous years.

  10. Personally, I haven’t noticed a decline. Their call is one of the great sounds of nature for me; for some reason it’s very evocative/nostalgic though I can’t remember where or when I used to hear them in my youth. Fortunately, I’ve found they still show up reliably on my camping trips in recent years.

    I think this is because good camping country tends to be good whip-poor-will country–as you say, the southern edge of the shield where the thin (or non-existent) soils guarantee a certain amount of the open habitat they like. In my experience I’ve had no trouble finding them in places like Frontenac, the Kawarthas, or Killarney. By contrast, I can’t remember ever hearing them in Algonquin, which tends to be more foresty.

    I styrongly suspect that the decline is down to the much-vaunted reforesting of eastern North America. A lot of marginal farmland was abandoned in the 50s and 60s. Presumably, old fields are perfect habitat and a lot of these have been shifting to forest in recent decades. It could be that we lack the forest-opening events, like fire, of earlier times. Or it could be that, like deer, whip-poor-wills benefitted disproportionately from the clearing of the land in the 19th-20th centuries, and that the numbers from fifty years ago were inflated by human activvities. Maybe we’re just returning to populations that are closer to pre-European levels.

  11. Dear Ms. Seabrooke,

    I am currently putting together a birding article for our Wolfe Lake Association’s annual cottager’s newsletter. I feature species that folks have a good chance of encountering, whether by sight or sound. One of my featured birds this year is the Whip-poor-will. I do not have a photograph available, and was wondering if I might use your stunning illustration to complement my written information.

    If you would let me know via email whether you’d permit this, and if so, how you would like to be credited at the conclusion of my article, I would be most appreciative. I have finished my piece and am just putting the visuals together. I’d like to get the work off to the newsletter’s editor some time next week. If this is not an acceptable request, I understand.

    Interestingly, your home location and my cottage location (Wolfe Lake near Westport, Ontario) are likely not too far apart.

    You might like to know that the Whip-poor-will can be heard regularly in the dawn and dusk around Wolfe Lake. I would be quite saddened by its loss.

    Thanks for your time and best regards,

    Margaret Manthey
    Marietta NY

    EMAIL: mmanthey@twcny.rr.com

  12. I grew up in Gooderham Ontario and some of my most pleasant moments were laying in bed early in the morning listening to their sounds just before the sun came up. I don’t hear them anymore when I visit. It’s a shame.

  13. We live in Palm Beach County FL, on the edge of the Loxahatchee preserve and listen to the sound of whip poor wills all night long… Wonderful. I’ll appreciate it all the more knowing they are disappearing elsewhere.

  14. Camping right now at Hawn State Park in Missouri. There are at least two whippoorwills here. Full moon Thursday night and they sang non-stop. I forgot about these guys until I heard it. Very interesting birds that need help.

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