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Species Spotlight: Whip-poor-will

Vital Signs

Image of a Whip-poor-will

Whip-poor-will By Jerry Oldenettel

Common name: Whip-poor-will
Latin name: Caprimulgus vociferus
Status Under SARA:Threatened
Range: Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario, Québec, Manitoba and Saskatchewan
Size: Reaches an average length of 22-26 cm, weighs 43-63 grams, and has a wingspan of 45-47 cm

The Facts

  • Male Whip-poor-wills will intimidate nest intruders by hovering with their body almost vertical and tail spread wide open.
  • The female lays her eggs in synchrony with the lunar cycle, allowing the eggs to hatch about ten days before a full moon, giving parents the time to gather as much food as possible for the chicks.
  • Chicks often distance themselves from one another, perhaps as a survival technique for avoiding predators.

The Story

Few birds have as distinct a song as the Whip-poor-will. Most frequently heard around the dusk or dawn hours, the bird’s emphatic “whip-poor-will” notes ring from its perches on tree branches or rocky outcrops where it is well camouflaged. Its beautiful soft colour tones range from shades of brown with gray and white, to lighter shades on its wingtips and tail feathers, with tan or whitish coloured markings on its belly.

The nocturnal Whip-poor-will is most active at dusk and at early dawn when it is out foraging for flying insects, its only source of food. Its preferred habitats include semi-open forest with exposed rock outcrops, grasslands, pastures, and habitats with exposed mineral soils. Whip-poor-wills avoid heavily forested areas, heavily farmed areas, and human settlements.

In Canada, the Whip-poor-will ranges from south-central Saskatchewan to Nova Scotia, south of the boreal forest. During its breeding season, its range extends down into the northern Gulf States and Mexico. The winter months are spent in areas from the southern United States to Nicaragua.

This species is not known to prepare a formal nest, instead laying its eggs within a site of dried leaves. Clutch size is an average of two eggs, with chicks being quite mobile once born.

Conservation Status

Image of a Whip-poor-will

Image of a Whip-poor-will

The Whip-poor-will is listed as Threatened under Schedule 1 of Canada’s Species At Risk Act. The species is also protected under the Migratory Birds Convention Act.

Long-term and short-term declines in the species have been seen, particularly in eastern populations. Local populations have dropped more than 30% over a 10-year period; the decline is most likely linked to other insect-feeding bird species’ population declines, due to habitat loss and significant changes to the prey base.

What You Can Do

  1. Advocate for the reduction or elimination of pesticides and biocides in agriculture and forestry, and maintain a pesticide-free lawn to encourage a healthy population of insects on which Whip-poor-wills can feed.
  2. Scientists need your help to gain a better idea of this species’ numbers in North America. Join a bird count or enter your data online if you hear their distinctive call.
  3. Tell elected officials you favour permanent protection of Whip-poor-will habitat by designating and expanding regional, provincial and national parks and reserves in your region.
  4. Stay informed about endangered birds and other species by signing up to Nature Canada’s monthly e-newsletter.


The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds

Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History, Birds of Nova Scotia

Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, COSEWIC

Species at Risk Public Registry, SARA

Thanks to Nature Canada volunteer Michael Berrigan for contributing this profile.
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