Conway Daily Sun
COUNTRY ECOLOGY
©WHIP-POOR-WILL

 

 

 It has been noticed that there has been a considerable drop in the numbers of neotropical migrants since the mid-l960's. These birds of our summers are long range flyers from the interior jungles of Central and South America, or the Caribbean. While people in the East have always perceived that "the birds fly south for the winter," the more accurate view is that tropical residents come up here only for a few months. The conservation of these neotropical migrants is complex, because it must take into account both their breeding areas and overwintering areas, and the migration routes in between.


 At first, the deforestation of the Amazon Rain Forest was blamed for the birds' demise. However, the main problem rests closest to home and we have something to do with it. If one thinks of all the houses built along the rural roads we used to live on as kids in the 50's, one can grasp what's happened. Those undeveloped tracts of land we used to call "the Woods" are what have disappeared. Visiting the neighborhoods we once lived in as children would reveal almost total development from one end of the street to the other, causing us to exclaim in surprise. 


 House cats roaming between homes eat up the ground nesting birds' nestlings. Nothing makes me see red more than hearing a pet owner say that their cat is part of the natural scheme of things. Not on this continent, I say. The birds are not evolved to deal with this well fed menace that kills even when unnecessary. Cats have become a conservation menace as there are more than 60 million domestic cats in the United States. Free-ranging (semi-wild) cats and house cats that roam outside kill much wildlife.


Recent studies have indicated that the average cat may kill l4 wild animals a year, and that rural cats kill more than urban or suburban feline pets do. Globally, domestic cats may be responsible for the extinction of more bird species than habitat loss. 


 A species that really suffers as a ground nester is the whip-poor-will. Whip-poor-will eggs may be just on top the leaves, hardly making a depression, in woods open enough to allow sun-dappled light blend the parent bird into the surroundings. Ruffed grouse lay much more eggs than the two laid by a whip-poor-will, and in thicker woods and cover.


 Whip-poor-wills often appear in late evening around country dwellings in pursuit of nocturnal insects, such as moths, beetles, and mosquitoes, which are attracted to the buildings' lights. A bright colored, flat, open space seems to attract whip-poor-wills on moonlit nights. They will alight on a bare ledge in a pasture, on a stone wall, or on a flat-topped chimney cap. Woe to the needs for sleep if a whip-poor-will sends out its incessant call then, with the chimney flue performing as a sound chamber to echo the loud call throughout the house for hours. 


 Whip-poor-wills seem to like the sound of their own voices, never tiring of nearly l000 renditions during some nights. "Jarring" the darkness with these calls puts them in the "Nightjar" family.  Whip-poor-wills use this celebrated call from May through early August to help locate a present or prospective mate or rival. If you are close enough to the bird, you will hear a slight "Chuck" sound just before the loud call ensues. In olden times, in more suspicious folklore, it was said that when a whip-poor-will called on your door-stone, its visit presaged sickness or death in the family.


 Whip-poor-wills rarely, if ever, hunt for their young in day-time, but as shades of night fall, they rise from the ground or from some horizontal tree limb, where they've lain all day. They can be much camouflaged on dead leaves on the ground, with their gray and brown plumage perfectly blending with the ground cover where the bird nests in dry, open woodlands. With no concealment whatsoever, the female is confident she can incubate her two eggs without ever being discovered in the sun-dappled shade. Her eyes are mere slits then, but open round and large at night as she takes to the air. Whip-poor-wills move rapidly, with their large mouths extended wide to trap flying insects with the speed and dexterity of a bat. They rarely fly more than 25 feet above the ground. 


 The whip-poor-will's lifestyle works another astonishing miracle. The bird's reproductive life cycle conforms to the waxing and waning of the moon. Hatching out when the moon is at its brightest, the new young are easily satisfied by their parents, who hunt most effectively in full moonlight. In recent years, we have fewer of these birds due to house cat predation on these ground-nesting, neo-tropical migrants. People only know they hear few whip-poor-wills calling, if any, and wonder why.

 Dave Eastman also broadcasts “Country Ecology” four times weekly over WMWV 93.5 fm.  As Vice President of the Lakes Region Chapter/ASNH, he welcomes you to monthly programs at the Loon Center in Moultonborough.  He is available at:    for consultation.

 

 

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