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Eastern Whip-poor-will


IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Eastern Whip-poor-will Photo

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.

Keys to identification Help

Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    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.

  • Color Pattern

    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.

  • Behavior

    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.

  • Habitat

    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.

Range Map Help

Eastern Whip-poor-will Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Adult

    Eastern Whip-poor-will

    • Stocky, cryptically-patterned nightjar
    • Large, dark eyes
    • Bold, black central crown stripe
    • Pale, silvery gray shoulder patches
    • © Nancy Landry, Parker River NWR, Massachusetts, May 2008
  • Adult

    Eastern Whip-poor-will

    • Medium-sized, cryptically-patterned nightjar
    • Pale, silvery shoulder patches
    • Dark central crown stripe
    • © Greg Lawrence, Greece, New York, May 2012
  • Adult

    Eastern Whip-poor-will

    • Stocky nightjar with camouflage pattern all over
    • White outer tail feathers sometimes visible on perched birds
    • © geno k, Atlanta, Georgia, November 2009

Similar Species

  • Adult


    • Larger than Whip-poor-will
    • Longer, more pointed wings
    • Rufous tip on tail
    • Pale shoulder patches faint or lacking altogether
    • © Christopher L. Wood, Corpus Christi, Texas, April 2011
  • Adult

    Common Nighthawk

    • More elongated and slender-bodied than Whip-poor-will
    • Smaller head
    • Much longer, pointed wings reach past tip of tail
    • White throat and barred breast
    • © Greg Page, Paul Rushing Park, Texas, April 2010
  • Adult

    Common Poorwill

    • Much smaller and more compact than Whip-poor-will
    • White throat patch
    • Very short wings and tail
    • Relatively large head
    • © Cody Conway, South Llano River State Park, Texas, July 2010
  • Adult

    Common Pauraque

    • Much longer tail than Whip-poor-will
    • Rufous cheek patches
    • Pale edges on shoulder feathers give scalloped appearances
    • © Reddirtpics, Progreso, Texas, February 2012

Similar Species

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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