CAPRIMULGUS VOCIFERUS, Wils.
PLATE XLII.--MALE AND FEMALE.
This bird makes its appearance in most parts of our Western and Southern
Districts, at the approach of spring, but is never heard, and indeed scarcely
ever occurs, in the State of Louisiana. The more barren and mountainous parts
of the Union seem to suit it best. Accordingly, the open Barrens of Kentucky,
and the country through which the Alleghany ridges pass, are more abundantly
supplied with it than any other region. Yet, wherever a small tract of country,
thinly covered with timber, occurs in the Middle Districts, there the
Whip-poor-will is heard during the spring and early autumn.
This species of Night-jar, like its relative the Chuck-will's-widow, is
seldom seen during the day, unless when accidentally discovered in a state of
repose, when, if startled, it rises and flies off, but only to such a distance
as it considers necessary, in order to secure it from the farther intrusion of
the disturber of its noon-day slumbers. Its flight is very low, light, swift,
noiseless, and protracted, as the bird moves over the places which it inhabits,
in pursuit of the moths, beetles and other insects, of which its food is
composed. During the day, it sleeps on the ground, the lowest branches of small
trees and bushes, or the fallen trunks of trees so abundantly dispersed through
the woods. In such situations, you may approach within a few feet of it; and,
should you observe it whilst asleep, and not make any noise sufficient to alarm
it, will suffer you to pass quite near without taking flight, as it seems to
sleep with great soundness, especially about the middle of the day. In rainy or
very cloudy weather, it sleeps less, and is more on the alert. Its eyes are
then kept open for hours at a time, and it flies off as soon as it discovers an
enemy approaching, which it can do, at such times, at a distance of twenty or
thirty yards. It always appears with its body parallel to the direction of the
branch or trunk on which it sits, and, I believe, never alights across a branch
or a fence-rail.
No sooner has the sun disappeared beneath the horizon, than this bird
bestirs itself, and sets out in pursuit of insects. It passes low over the
bushes, moves to the right or left, alights on the ground to secure its prey,
passes repeatedly and in different directions over the same field, skims along
the skirts of the woods, and settles occasionally on the tops of the
fence-stakes or on stumps of trees, from whence it sallies, like a Fly-catcher,
after insects, and, on seizing them, returns to the same spot. When thus
situated, it frequently alights on the ground, to pick up a beetle. Like the
Chuck-will's-widow, it also balances itself in the air, in front of the trunks
of trees, or against the sides of banks, to discover ants, and other small
insects that may be lurking there. Its flight is so light and noiseless, that
whilst it is passing within a few feet of a person, the motion of its wings is
not heard by him, and merely produces a gentle undulation in the air. During
all this time, it utters a low murmuring sound, by which alone it can be
discovered in the dark, when passing within a few yards of one, and which I have
often heard when walking or riding through the barrens at night.
Immediately after the arrival of these birds, their notes are heard in the
dusk and through the evening, in every part of the thickets, and along the
skirts of the woods. They are clear and loud, and to me are more interesting
than those of the Nightingale. This taste I have probably acquired, by
listening to the Whip-poor-will in parts where Nature exhibited all her lone
grandeur, and where no discordant din interrupted the repose of all around.
Only think, kind reader, how grateful to me must have been the cheering voice of
this my only companion, when, fatigued and hungry, after a day of unremitted
toil, I have planted my camp in the wilderness, as the darkness of night put a
stop to my labours! I have often listened to the Nightingale, but never under
such circumstances, and therefore its sweetest notes have never awakened the
The Whip-poor-will continues its lively son, for several hours after
sunset, and then remains silent until the first dawn of day, when its notes echo
through every vale, and along the declivities of the mountains, until the beams
of the rising sun scatter the darkness that overhung the face of nature.
Hundreds are often heard at the same time in different parts of the woods, each
trying to out-do the others; and when you are told that the notes of this bird
may be heard at the distance of several hundred yards, you may form an idea of
the pleasure which every lover of nature must feel during the time when this
chorus is continued.
Description is incapable of conveying to your mind any accurate idea of the
notes of this bird, much less of the feelings which they excite. Were I to tell
you that they are, in fact, not strictly musical, you might be disappointed.
The cry consists of three distinct notes, the first and last of which are
emphatical and sonorous, the intermediate one less so. These three notes are
preceded by a low cluck, which seems preparatory to the others, and which is
only heard when one is near the bird. A fancied resemblance which its notes
have to the syllables whip-poor-will, has given rise to the common name of the
This species is easily shot, when the moon is shining, and the night clear,
as you may then approach it without much caution. It is, however, difficult to
hit it on wing, on account of the zig-zag lines in which it flies, as well as
the late hour at which it leaves its resting-place. It is seldom killed,
however, being too small to be sought as an article of food, although its flesh
is savoury, and it is too harmless to excite dislike.
It deposits its eggs about the middle of May, on the bare ground, or on dry
leaves, in the most retired parts of the thickets which it frequents. They are
always two in number, of a short elliptical form, much rounded, and nearly equal
at both ends, of a greenish-white colour, spotted and blotched with bluish-grey
and light brown. The young burst the shell in fourteen days after the
commencement of incubation, and look at first like a mouldy and almost shapeless
mass, of a yellowish colour. When first able to fly they are of a brown colour,
interspersed with patches of buff, the brown being already beautifully sprinkled
with darker dots and zig-zag lines. They attain their full plumage before they
depart, with their parents, for the south. I think their southward migration,
which is performed by night, must be very rapid, as I have never found any of
these birds in Louisiana at that season, whereas they proceed slowly on their
return in spring. Both birds sit on the eggs, and feed the young for a long
time after they are able to fly, either on wing, in the manner of the Common
House Swallow, or while perched on the fences, wood-piles, or houses. The food
of the young at first consists of ants, and partially digested beetles and large
moths, which the parents disgorge; but at the end of a fortnight the parents
present the food whole to the young, which then swallow it with ease.
Much has been said respecting the difference existing between the
Whip-poor-will and the Night Hawk, for the purpose of shewing them to be
distinct species. On this subject I shall only say, that I have known both
birds from my early youth, and I have seldom seen a farmer or even a boy in the
United States, who did not know the difference between them.
It is a remarkable fact that even the largest moths on which the
Whip-poor-will feeds, are always swallowed tail foremost, and when swallowed,
the wings and legs are found closely laid together, and as if partially glued by
the saliva or gastric juice of the bird. The act of deglutition must be greatly
aided by the long bristly feathers of the upper mandible, as these no doubt
force the wings of the insects close together, before they enter the mouth.
I have represented a male and two females, as well as some of the insects
on which they feed. The former are placed on a branch of red oak, that tree
being abundant on the skirts of the Kentucky Barrens, where the Whip-poor-will
is most plentiful.
WHIP-POOR-WILL, Caprimulgus vociferus, Wils. Amer. Orn.,
vol. v. p. 71.
CAPRIMULGUS VOCIFERUS, Bonap. Syn., p. 62.
WHIP-POOR-WILL, Caprimulgus vociferus, Aud. Orn. Biog.,
vol. i. p. 422; vol. v. p. 405.
WHIP-POOR-WIll, Caprimulgus vociferus, Nutt. Man., vol. i. p. 614.
Bristles without lateral filaments; tail much rounded. General colour of
upper parts dark brownish-grey, streaked and minutely sprinkled with
brownish-black; quills and coverts dark brown, spotted in bars with light
brownish-red; four middle tail-feathers like those of the back, the three
lateral white in their terminal half; throat and breast similar to the back,
with a transverse band of white on the fore neck, the rest of the lower parts
paler and mottled. Female like the male, but with the lateral tail-feathers
reddish-white toward the tip only, and the band across the fore neck pale
Male, 9 1/2, 19. Female.