David Lauderdale

Where have all the whippoorwills gone?

John James Audubon images of the whippoorwill courtesy of the John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove, Audubon, Pa., and the Montgomery County, Pa., Audubon Collection.
John James Audubon images of the whippoorwill courtesy of the John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove, Audubon, Pa., and the Montgomery County, Pa., Audubon Collection. Audubon

Bart Whiteman of Hilton Head Island writes that something important is missing from his life this summer.

He’s not hearing any whippoorwills.

“I heard one in March,” he said. “It is the sound of summer. Please figure it out.”

I’m not a bird expert. But the first thing that comes to mind is, “It’s not the humidity. It’s the heat.”

It’s so hot this summer, whole fishing parties are melting into little oil slicks on Skull Creek. Visitors to Beaufort are refusing to get off the tour bus. Preachers are walking off the job because nobody is afraid of hell.

But that may not matter because the whippoorwill sleeps in the heat of the day. Then it tries to keep the rest of us awake at night and up early with its mysterious, whistling wail: “Whip poor Will. Whip poor Will. Whip poor Will ...”

Some tormented soul “once counted 1,088 whip-poor-wills given rapidly without a break,” the Audubon reports.

We hear whippoorwills, but rarely see them, and it’s probably just as well. They have what appears to be whiskers. They’re no bigger than a robin, but look owlish, with small feet so wacky they can’t walk straight. And they fly in zig-zag lines in the pitch dark with gaping mouths ajar, sucking down moths and other insects in a single gulp.

Even the dictionary can’t gussy up the poor whippoorwill: “A dark, insect-eating, nocturnal nightjar.”

That may be a good enough resume to get you elected president of the United States, but it is a problem for the whippoorwill. We just don’t have moths like we used to, say some experts.

And Hilton Head has precious little of the open forest the whippoorwill prefers.

“Numbers appear to have decreased over much of the east in recent decades,” Audubon says. “Reasons for the decline are not well understood, but it could reflect a general reduction in numbers of large moths and beetles.”

Perhaps whippoorwills will never be the symbols of summer they were when we were kids, before the primary sound of summer became the whine of an air conditioner.

We heard them when the long day finally edged into night. It was the magic hour of lightning bugs, after the kick-the-can game moved under the street light, and before we heard our names called from the porch.

They were the true sound of summer camp, not those corny songs.

And the lowly, unseen bird seemed to lay its own troubles on the table when we couldn’t sleep.

That’s how the whippoorwill made its greatest contribution to mankind, even greater than gobbling mosquitoes and moths.

It helped Hank Williams write the best poem of all time. It explains why Bart Whiteman doesn’t want the whippoorwill to cry alone.

Hear that lonesome whippoorwill

He sounds too blue to fly

The midnight train is whining low

I’m so lonesome I could cry.

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