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IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern
Made famous in folk songs, poems, and literature for their endless chanting on summer nights, Eastern Whip-poor-wills are easy to hear but hard to see. Their brindled plumage blends perfectly with the gray-brown leaf litter of the open forests where they breed and roost. At dawn and dusk, and on moonlit nights, they sally out from perches to sweep up insects in their cavernous mouths. These common birds are on the decline in parts of their range as open forests are converted to suburbs or agriculture.
Eastern Whip-poor-wills are medium-sized birds with a large, rounded head and a stout chest that tapers to a long tail and wings, giving them a distinctly front-heavy look.
Like all nightjars, Eastern Whip-poor-wills are patterned with a complicated mottling of gray and brown, which camouflages them nearly perfectly with leaf litter or tree bark. They have a blackish throat bordered at the bottom by a neat, white bib. Males have white corners to the tail; on females, these spots are dull buff.
Eastern Whip-poor-wills are strictly nocturnal. At night they rest on the ground or perch horizontally on low trees and fly up to catch moths and other aerial insects. They chant their loud, namesake whip-poor-will song continuously on spring and summer evenings. During the day, Eastern Whip-poor-wills roost on the ground or on a tree limb and are very difficult to spot.
Look for Eastern Whip-poor-wills in eastern forests with open understories. They can be found in both purely deciduous and mixed deciduous-pine forests, often in areas with sandy soil.
Chuck-will’s-widows are larger and have much larger heads than Eastern Whip-poor-wills. They also have paler buffy throats than Eastern Whip-poor-wills. The two species overlap in range, but their songs have a different rhythm and are quite easily distinguished. Common Nighthawks are a colder gray-brown overall than the richer colors of Eastern Whip-poor-will. Common Nighthawks are much more likely to be seen in daylight, in open areas, and higher in the sky than Eastern Whip-poor-wills. Look for the nighthawk’s obvious white bars on the outer part of its wings. Mexican Whip-poor-wills used to be considered the same species as Eastern Whip-poor-will; they look very similar but their ranges do not overlap in the U.S. The Mexican Whip-poor-will’s song sounds more like “purple-whip” than “whip-poor-will.” Common Pauraques of extreme southern Texas are larger and have longer tails than Eastern Whip-poor-wills.
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