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As the Whip-poor-will’s Chant Wanes, Our Cultural Loss Grows

 Audubon > News Read More 

The night of June 10 was warm, but not too much so. After days of rain, Concord, Massachusetts, wrung itself dry. The moon edged toward fullness. Rarely in need of an excuse to wander, Henry David Thoreau took it anyway. He followed Concord’s train tracks out of town and into a moonlit meadow. There, he encountered an iconic bird of the United States: the Eastern Whip-poor-will.

With their cryptic plumage and nocturnal habits, Eastern Whip-poor-wills are rarely seen, but the male’s loud, rhythmic songis hard to miss. Thoreau heard them that evening—five or six at once. A few nights later, when the moon was full, he encountered a dozen or more. “Perhaps this is the Whip-poor-will’s Moon,” he wrote in his journal in 1851.

Thoreau wasn’t the only one who kept vigil. In languages of many who know the species, whip-poor-wills chant their names to summer night:

To Muskogee Nation, wahkolv.

To Choctaw Nation, wahwoli.

To the Eastern Band of Cherokee, wagule.

To those who brought Spanish to the whip-poor-will, cuerpo ruin.

To those who brought French, bois-pourri.

Into the early 20th century, whip-poor-wills were sheer magic to those who inhabited their breeding range and awaited the species’ return each April and May. An important seasonal sign, the first whip-poor-will’s call signaled an end to frosts and marked the moment to plant sensitive crops, like corns and beans. Farmers let cattle out to pasture. Children knew they could play outside barefoot.

Quirkier and more personal rituals developed around their appearance. One could make a wish on his song, roll on the ground three times for a year without backpain, or shake a pocket full of coins for a year of financial success. Some people believed the repetitions of his name, which he can sing for many hours, predicted how many years they would live or, if they were unmarried, how many until they’d wed. In an article that circulated widely in 1941 and 1942, the United Press reported that an Alabama man—known to friends and family as “Uncle Rip”—waited to have one of his two annual haircuts until whip-poor-wills returned.

Throughout the summer, encounters with whip-poor-wills were significant. Among the Iroquois of the northeast and the Menominee of Wisconsin, a whip-poor-will calling near one’s home signaled an impending death. Europeans and early Euro-Americans believed this, too, possibly coopting Indigenous beliefs and combining them with those surrounding the European Nightjar.

The whip-poor-wills’ tune was also part of the nation’s emotional landscape. To 19th century poets, whip-poor-wills might sound mournful, plaintive, and grieving. To John James Audubon, the “cheering voice” of the whip-poor-will was his “only companion” on nights alone in the woods. Others heard the sound of loneliness. When Hank Williams wanted to convey that emotion, he sang of a whip-poor-will who “sounds too blue to fly” in his often-covered 1949 classic, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”

Yet in the decades since Williams belted those classic opening lines, much has changed for the whip-poor-will—and for our own relationship with the species.

While many kinds of birds are experiencing population declines, whip-poor-wills are especially vulnerable to habitat loss, pesticide use, loss of prey, car strikes, and predation. Ornithologists estimate that the Eastern Whip-poor-will population decreased by nearly 70 percent between 1970 and 2014. But their decline may have begun sooner. After World War II, agricultural and suburban development swallowed great swaths of woodlands. As early as the 1950s, writers like Knoxville News-Sentinel’s Lucy Templeton, whose “A Country Calendar” often included reports and lore about whip-poor-wills, worried over their disappearance from local landscapes.

We’ve changed, too. Many people moved away from the rural towns where they grew up amid birdsong. In the suburbs that replaced bird habitats, we homogenized landscapes with decorative plants unwelcoming to whip-poor-wills. If whip-poor-wills seemed to abandon our world, we also abandoned theirs.

To describe the human consequences of species decline, the lepidopterist Robert Michael Pyle coined the term “extinction of experience,” an ecological insight gained through his own moments of loss. One autumn, a young Pyle found a colony of bronze copper butterflies at an unpaved parking lot behind a Lutheran church in Colorado. The lot had been built over a partly filled-in lake. In its damper spots, cattails, docks, and pink knotweeds sprouted.

These extinctions of experience trouble our relationship with the world.

To the young naturalist, these unremarkable wilds were pure promise. To bronze coppers, whose caterpillars feed on docks, they were a necessity. But when Pyle returned a few years later, he found a spoiled landscape: “The Lutherans paved their parking lot,” he wrote in his classic of urban nature, The Thunder Tree.

When a species no longer finds a home near our own, we lose the possibility of encountering them on the day-to-day. These extinctions of experience trouble our relationship with the world. Familiarity with and knowledge of a species withers. If that species grounded us in local landscapes or the changing of seasons, we may also find ourselves uprooted.

These losses also fray ties among families and communities. This is especially the case among Native American communities who have intimate, reciprocal relationships with other species. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer tells of Potawatomi basket weavers who partner with black ash trees. With the arrival of invasive emerald ash borers, Kimmerer writes, “beloved basket grounds are now boneyards of barkless trees. There is a rupture in the chain of relationship that stretches back through time immemorial.” Similarly, for members of the Karuk Tribe of California, the decline of salmon in the Klamath River produces grief for children who may never fish the river and threatens communal ties forged through traditional diets.

The decline of a species even changes our relationship to broader culture, as we may no longer understand long-standing rituals and references. After all, how many have wailed along with Williams without having shared a summer night with a whip-poor-will?

Whip-poor-wills were once so familiar that people measured their lives by them. Today, absence defines their place. Modern country singers who invoke the bird are soaked in nostalgia. In Alan Jackson’s “I Still Like Bologna” and Darryl Worley’s “Back Where I Belong,” whip-poor-wills represent a rural life that, like the bird itself, is increasingly difficult to find.  

Eulogy is the default form in media, too. “Sadly, call of whip-poor-will is being heard less” was the lament out of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in 2011. “Where has the Whip-poor-will gone,” asked a 2015 essay for Wilkes-Barre’s Time Leader. In 2022, Outside magazine offered “an ode to the disappearing whip-poor-will.” Ordinary Americans also grieve the loss. “This made me want to cry—nostalgia from when my great grandparents lived on their farm in the country and we’d sit and listen to them at night,” wrote a commenter on one YouTube recording.

Even before we have lost whip-poor-wills, we have lost whip-poor-wills. But what might this loss lead us to, other than the difficult emotion that we now call eco-grief? In our nostalgia for whip-poor-wills might we recognize how deeply attached we are to the world and its other beings? Might we follow these attachments back to the world, back to the species who once spoke to us, and back to the obligations we have to them?

Though I grew up in the whip-poor-will’s breeding range in New York, I never heard them sing from the woods behind my childhood home. They did not populate the stories I read as a child or the lessons I learned in school, as they had for earlier generations. Reports of the species’ spring return never circulated in my community (though perhaps devoted birders kept vigil). For me, the cultural extinction of whip-poor-wills was virtually complete: I hadn’t even known a bird such as a whip-poor-will existed until my early thirties, after I became a birder and left their range for a job as a sociologist at the University of Denver.

There in Colorado I met a whip-poor-will relative: the Common Nighthawk. My encounters with these birds were formative, a mix of awe with the birder’s thrill of “discovery.” I once lucked upon one perched in a city tree in Denver; he revealed himself with a startlingly loud call. I’ve stood among a trio as they hunted, furiously and low, in a city park. I’ve watched great autumn flocks empty the dusk of flying insects. I’ve tried to see the human landscape from the perspective of a nighthawk, inspecting satellite images to find gravel-covered buildings on which they might nest.

In our nostalgia for whip-poor-wills, might we recognize how deeply attached we are to the world and its other beings?

In a course I teach, I ask my students to consider and seek out “rediscoveries of experience” —everyday encounters that fuel deeper concern and understanding for other species. In following the trajectory of nighthawks, I seek this, too. I’m hoping to spot the birds, of course. But I think I’m also after something else: assurance that they persist through their own precipitous decline.

My interest in nighthawks led me to a fascination with the remarkable nightjar family. That led me to the nightjar whose range I grew up around, and the rich stories surrounding whip-poor-wills inspired me to write a book about their cultural lives. Over the past decade, I’d now heard whip-poor-wills while birding in New York, but their songs were muffled by distance, tree cover, and traffic. These were not the sort of encounters that had made whip-poor-wills into icons of the eastern woods. So, on a visit back to New York, now in my 40s, I sought them out.

After a week of failed attempts, I found myself on a dead-end road at a murky edge to a state forest in New York’s Hudson Valley, less than an hour’s drive from where I grew up. But I was not there seeking nostalgia. Instead, I was after a song that felt definitive—a song that would help me understand why whip-poor-wills have meant so much to us. And then, I heard them, finally, even before I quieted my car’s engine. They were there, out where the marsh met woods. Close. Two, at least.

They called and answered, their songs running together until what they said was not “whip-poor-will,” but more than that. In another time, we might have once communed about the ebb and flow of seasons, about the places we once and still share, and about what we need from each other to endure in a changing world.

We might still yet, I hope.

 

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