| Aug 14, 2008

Outdoors - August 14, 2008

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Outdoors in the LandO'Lakes - August 14, 2008 Whip-poor-wills – Love ‘em or hate ‘em. Outdoors in the Land O'Lakes by Steve Blight

Most people that spend time in the Land o’ Lakes eventually hear the call of the Whip-poor-will. This nocturnal bird is a member of an oddly named family of birds, alternately known as nightjars or goatsuckers. Apparently the name goatsucker comes from an ancient (and thoroughly incorrect) belief that these birds sucked milk from goats in pastures. The source of the name nightjars remains a mystery – at least to me. The other regular visitor to our area in this family is the Common Nighthawk.

In Ontario, Whip-poor-wills prefer rocky areas with scattered trees, open coniferous and mixed woodlands and woodland clearings. One of the areas with the highest concentration of these robin-sized birds is the southern edge of the Canadian Shield among the mosaic of rocky farms and woodlands. Whip-poor-wills hunt flying insects, flying erratically through the forest and catching them on the wing with their enormous mouths. They build no nests; their eggs (usually 2) are laid directly on the bare ground or leaf litter. Males and females have similar but not identical plumage, and incubation is mainly by the female.

Whip-poor wills breed across southern Canada from Nova Scotia to Saskatchewan, south to the southern United States. They winter from the very southern US through Mexico and Central America.

People tend to have a mixed reaction to the whip-poor-will’s nighttime serenade. These mottled grey, brown and black birds can sing their loud song continuously from dusk to dawn in spring and early summer, especially when the moon is full. While some people find this behaviour very annoying when it keeps them awake, for others it brings back warm, familiar memories of time spent in the country. My first experience with Whip-poor-wills was when I was camping on the shores of Loughborough Lake in the 1970s. A Whip-poor-will set up shop very close to our tent one evening and proceeded to entertain us all night. Despite the fact that it cost me a good night’s sleep, I have fond memories of this experience – which puts me squarely in the camp of Whip-poor-will “likers”.

Conservation of whip-poor-wills is an important concern in Ontario. Breeding bird surveys have indicated a very sharp decline across Ontario, consistent with declines noted elsewhere in North America. Unfortunately, anecdotal evidence suggests that the Land o’ Lakes area is not immune to this trend. Whip-poor-wills have disappeared from many areas where they were previously common. In our two decades on Bobs Lake, we have heard just one Whip-poor-will, and only at a distance. Long-time residents and regular visitors to our area have noticed their absence from areas where they once were common. Some people have observed that they currently seem to be more common north of Highway 7 than south.

Reasons for the decline in Whip-poor-will numbers are not well understood, but have been linked to unfavourable habitat changes on their breeding grounds and wintering territories, increased pesticide use, and a general reduction of large night-flying insects such as moths. Whatever the cause, it is a disturbing trend and I would miss this bird if it were to disappear from our area. Let’s hope that we figure out how to make sure Whip-poor-wills are around to ruin the sleep of the next generation of Land o’ Lakers!

Please feel free to report any observations to to Steve Blight at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or Lorraine Julien at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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