Lessons From The Whippoorwill

Photo by Judd Patterson.

We had a gift waiting for us six months after we built our home. I’m so glad I discovered it serendipitously.  To have known about the magnetic call of our back yard whippoorwill before the bird revealed itself would have been less magical and made the first time we heard the sound expected.  The way our whippoorwill revealed itself, however, was to become the difference in an evening chorus of tree frogs and lingering day songs from the birds who were almost done for the evening.

When the human brains register a “difference,” the first notion is to test the new feedback out.  “Did you hear that?” I asked Mick as we worked in the last hint of light, raking up twigs in our back yard?

“What? No, I didn’t hear anything,” he replied.

I heard it again, ever so slightly more pronounced.  “THAT,” I said.  “That sound.  It’s a bird call I’ve not heard before.”

When rakes stop scratching and attention is completely directed toward the collection of incoming sounds, then the world changes.  Here is exactly the sound we heard together after pausing that evening:

And, we are blessed to hear it every Spring around this time.  All told, I’ve enjoyed eight years on our back porch listening to the call of the whippoorwill end the day.  He comes into auditory range when it reaches the bottom of our hill around the creek.  The beautiful sound grows more pronounced as the bird gradually moves along the treeline up the hill, passes across our back yard, and then continues on its path until it is out of range for our ears as it crests the top of the hill.

The process, in some ways, is like a one-hour long doppler effect.  Barely there, and heard at different wavelengths than when in immediate proximity, then changing again as it goes away.  The sound is beautiful, but the bird is by and large elusive.  It stops singing if you approach the area where it rests.  After all, WE are not the mate it is looking for.

But when she responds, and they mate somewhere outside the range of our eyes or ears, the result is one or two eggs that will eventually hatch into more birds with hauntingly beautiful voices.  The sound is so powerful that some Native American lore states that when people die, the whippoorwill catches the soul as it leaves their body.  Mysterious, beautiful, and woven into the mythology of our ancients, I am grateful for this bird. And I’m grateful for the lessons it gives us.

First, there is beauty in patience.  To hear only a slice of the bird’s process during Spring evenings is to hear only a moment of nature.  But to pause for the length of time that the whippoorwill’s call beckons your auditory nerves into a relaxing meditation is to stop your world for quiet reflection.  Reflection that allows your mind to let go of a thought every time the call is made until there are no thoughts left to tangle the moment.  Until a serene peace takes over you, the moment and the bird who chanted you into your meditative state.

Second, there is a rhythm and cycle of nature that cannot be denied.  The sun comes up and sets. The seasons turn. Babies are born and people die. Birds are compelled to seek their mates, lay eggs and tend to their babies. Millions of rituals prescribed by nature take place every day.  They are bigger than us, stronger than the mightiest human will, and will continue for longer than our bodies will survive.  The rhythm and cycles that are demonstrated in the approach of the whippoorwill every Spring are ways in which we as humans can take perspective, adjust our spirits, thank God for His perfect design and for the fact that a new day will begin again very soon.  That, in spite of our chaotic and human existence, something more powerful than our daily schedules and bigger than our goals is managing this Earth quite nicely.

Finally, that we need connection and can only rest when it is found.  The primary purpose of the call on this recording is the invitation for companionship.  The instinct and need that living creatures have to wish for another, and the capacity to work on filling that need until the task is complete is, in itself, an amazing mystery.  The call of the whippoorwill, although repetitious, is never wearying.  Rather, it says to its yet unfound mate, “Here I am.  This is what I sound like.  This is who we are, this is what we do, and, I’m looking for you.”  The call is a beacon to the world sending the message that it is good, natural and useful for togetherness.  And that while being alone for a time might work, our very nature is that of connectedness.  As humans, we sometimes muddle this need with all sorts of rationalizations about if, when, and why we should be connected to another.  But for the whippoorwill, there is no angst.  Their vocalizations are a clarion call for the good that relationships with our fellow man can hold.

One night our whippoorwill gave us an extra lesson that was outside of its scope of teaching.  About six years ago I was outside on our trampoline with my eldest.  Our neighbor had come over and was laying there as we talked about her high school graduation and future plans.  We had been hearing the whippoorwill work its way up the hill and commented from time to time about its call.  All of the sudden, the bird actually flew to a branch hanging over the trampoline and began calling like crazy, “Whippoor-WILL! Whippor-WILL!”

Its little bird body leaned backward to take a massive bird breath in preparation of every call and when it let go, it looked like a cartoon rooster crowing at the morning sun with all its might.  And, it was LOUD! Oh my goodness, we began laughing so hard and could hardly hear each others’ giggles because that little bird was so incredibly powerful.  It just looked at us, called at the top of its lungs, and remained there for at least one or two minutes – no fear, no recognition that our peals of laughter were directed toward it…the bird just sat there with absolute resolve.  When it was convinced that a mate was not responding, it flew away to a tree about thirty yards away and began again.

I suppose that night also afforded us a lesson that sometimes, things you count on to be constant, can hold unexpected surprises.

My hope for you this Spring is that you get a beautiful surprise by hearing a whippoorwill before they move on and quietly tend to their new babies.



18 thoughts on “Lessons From The Whippoorwill”

  1. The sentiments are worthy, thank you.
    But , I believe that’s a Chuck-Will’s-Widow, not a whip-poor-will.

  2. I too was searching online for the symbolic meaning of the whippoorwill. Tonight the eve before my birthday 5-11-16 (this blog first posted 5-11-12) I came out of my church after a small group meditation. As I stepped out I heard the loud call of a whippoorwill which seemed to come from a large tree about 30 feet away. I was very surprised because this was located in the middle of Milwaukee, a large city where I had never heard a whippoorwill before ! It was a wonderful surprise. I never saw the bird and it seemed to carry a message. I can resonate with your interpretation. Thank you ! Robin.

  3. First I would like to say I love this site as I came across it the end of May looking up the meaning of the Whippoorwill. I had never heard this bird before. It now is a connection between my Dad and me. The many nights I would go visit my parents, stay the night or weekend, no one heard this bird. Friday, May 29th, sitting out on the deck w/my uncles we hear this sound so loud I thought it was someones car alarm! His call was so loud but beautiful. He came each night until Dad passed 4 days later on June 2nd at 3:17 am … he was still singing. He continued on a little softer even as the funeral director was leaving with Dad.
    Since that day, I hear his song…ever so softly now. Enough to wake me then lull me back to sleep. Very grateful for this sign.

    1. Jessica: What a special memory the whippoorwill has provided you. Thank you for sharing the moments re: your father’s passing, and that which lulls you back to sleep. Take care, RDK

    2. Our Whippoorwill is back! Yeah! End of May mom started hearing him/her. 🙂 Get this though, at the exact time of the 1st anniversay of my dads passing he woke mom up!! Love!!

      1. Oh, WOW. I love it when there is special or extra meaning to attach to things like your whippoorwill. Yay! Ours is back too, and I’m keeping my thankfulness until it moves along again and we have to wait until next year.

  4. I live off the grit…. And the bird has come on a tree next to my cabin for several nights sings from around 8 pm to around 5Pm non stop. I have got to hear three of them together and close.
    The songs are hypnotic… WHIP-POOR-WILL
    The song has change by the nights, and when they are in concert… 2 or more, they are impressive! Nothing alike.
    I feel it brings a message, but have no clue what it is.
    Whip poor will has a bad reputation on the web… I thought maybe… People could not write a story after they hear one… 🙂 It has come every single night for over a week. Whip poor will sings… Does not cry… And I believe is a mating call… Will see what happens ! Great page. If I wrote several times whip poor will, is for this page to appear on first results in google… To take the bad rep of this amazing bird songs.

    1. Daniel: I would imagine that living off the grid allows you the very best opportunities to hear the most beautiful whippoorwill sounds. So glad you shared your experience with us!

  5. I live in the woods, in the tip of NE Ga. Every spring I am entertained by whippoorwills, but usually only hear 2 to 4 birds calling. This year there must be a whole flock on the ridgeline because it sounds like a chorus. I sit on the porch when they start calling and I thought that was a thrill enough! Tonight I was playing cards, no TV/radio, windows open, porch light was on fortunately. I jumped skyhigh..thought one was in the cabin! On my hands & knees I crawled to the windowsill. Two were perched right on my porch rail. They trilled on & on for more than a minute, till my dogs barked at me kneeling in the dark. It was a thrill, they are very pretty and I certainly hope they come back tomorrow night. Called my kids, who obviously have no appreciation of what I saw. “So a night bird was on your porch. And??” Think I will lock the dogs in the bathrm tomorrow nite and see if I can get them with the camera video. Now that would be spectacular!

  6. Truly amazing! I really miss listening to there beautiful call! I don’t hear them like I used to when I was a child. We would go camping in Sulfur Oklahoma and Arbuckle lake in Oklahoma. We would lay in our tent and they would lull us to sleep. But we keep pushing them away with our so called progress? But I want to thank you for reminding us of what is truly important!

    1. Hi, Miki – sorry you had to write that twice. When people comment for the first time on the RDC, we have to approve them. After that, we’re all good! Thanks so much for checking in…take care, RDK

  7. Truly amazing! It’s kinda sad I do not hear them, like I used to when I was a child. We used to go camping, at Sulfur Oklahoma and Arbuckle lake in Oklahoma. We would lay in our tent and they would lull us to sleep. I really miss that. Unfortunately we keep pushing them away with our so called progress. Thanks you for reminding us of what is truly important.

    1. Micki – – you’re right. The “so-called” progress can really be detrimental if we never consider what we’re losing while we’re gaining, eh? Yes, they’re beautiful. I’m so glad you have those memories…~ RDK

    1. I’m not sure, Jim – – but I would say they last for 30-40 minutes…does that mean anything to you? Thanks, RDK

  8. I love the sounds of spring. How special to hear that whippoorwill. My favorite thing is to go to our cabin on the weekends and get up before the sun comes up to hear my little corner of the earth wake up. The sounds are breathtaking!

    1. Dear Jill – I’m so glad your cabin keeps treasures for you to hear and discover in your little corner of the earth. Bless the birds, and moments to hear them! ~ RDK

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