An Eastern Whip-poor-will in a tree in Ontario, Canada. Photo courtesy of Reuven Martin/GBIF

The Whip-poor-wills used to drive me mad at night. Or lull me to sleep. I can’t remember anything in between, it was so long ago.

In bed, I heard them repeat their name over and over in the dark, relentlessly, one phrase: Whip-poor-will. Whip-poor-will. Whip-poor-will. Whip-poor-will. Whip-poor-will. Whip-poor-will. Whip-poor-will.

It’s a three-note song. In poetic meter, three syllables pronounced together in this pattern are called a cretic, or amphimacer — an unstressed syllable between two stressed syllables. (English lends itself to iambs — two-syllable patterns of one unstressed and then one stressed. The word “ago” is iambic. Iambic pentameter: Five iambs in a line.)

The Whip-poor-will’s cretic song is unforgettable. When I called up an audio file of it from the internet, it sounded exactly as I remember from summer nights six decades ago in southern Maine. In the background of this maddening tune, the Two Lights foghorn bellowed trochees.

I can’t remember hearing a Whip-poor-will since then. Part of the reason is that I spent much of the 1970s and ’80s living in brick-and-pavement Portland, where the Whip-poor-wills don’t go. They live in woods near open fields, and lay their eggs directly on the ground, usually among leaves. The birds and eggs are so intricately camouflaged they’re practically invisible. The city compared to the woods and fields is bug-free, while Whip-poor-wills make their living snatching insects out of the dusk in their huge maws, like their nightjar cousins, the nighthawks.

Invisible Whip-poor-wills jarring the night. One researcher counted a Whip-poor-will singing its name 1,088 times in a row. That was long after it had been named Antrostomus vociferus.

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When I escaped from Portland and moved to Waldo County, I still did not hear a Whip-poor-will. What is going on?

The short answer is: No one knows for sure. The North American Breeding Bird Survey indicates that between 1966 and 2019, Whip-poor-will populations declined by about 61%. Piecing together the lives and hazards of migrating birds is extremely complicated — and Whip-poor-wills travel enormous distances between Central America and central Canada — but it’s thought that habitat disruptions caused by agriculture and sprawl are causing problems for them, not to mention other birds. A recent study suggests Whip-poor-will numbers could be dropping because of a lack of food, brought about by what looks like a widespread crash in flying insect populations.

Massachusetts has seen a serious decline in Whip-poor-wills since the 1960s, and they’re a “Species of Greatest Conservation Need” in that state’s Wildlife Action Plan. The Maine Wildlife Action Plan lists them as a “Priority 2 Species of Greatest Conservation Need.” On the IUCN Global Red List of Threatened Species, they’re registered as “Near Threatened.”

They can still be heard hereabouts. Or at least I’ve heard that people have heard them. I don’t know. Even stranger than the long, strange trip from the nightjar summer evenings of southern Maine to Troy is how clear the Whip-poor-wills echo in memory. As if the meter and pitch are burned permanently into the gray matter of time.

I’d give almost anything to be driven mad again by that song.

Dana Wilde lives in Troy. You can contact him at [email protected] His book “A Backyard Book of Spiders in Maine” is available from North Country Press. Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursdays each month.


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