Animals In Appalachia Appalachia


whippoorwills in Appalachia

When the Whippoorwhills Call by John Parris

There’s an old mountain saying that when the first whippoorwill calls it’s time for the corn to be in the ground.

Bert Hensley, a mountain man with a sharp eye and a keen ear for nature’s signs, heard his first whippoorwill of the year a couple nights back.

“When I heard it start to calling out there in the dark, and me sitting here by the fire,” he said, “I told myself, “you’d better get your corn in the ground’.”

So, yesterday, after a tardy sun had burned off the frost of a dogwood winter’s day, he hitched up his mule to the old plow and took to his new-turned ground to set his rows for his seed corn.

“My daddy and my granddaddy always said when the first whippoorwill calls, it’s time for the corn to be in the ground,” he recalled. “Most times my corn’s in the ground when I hear the first whippoorwill. But this year, I sort of held back, what with all the uncertain weather . . . “Speaking of whippoorwills,” he said, “some folks don’t like to hear ’em in the night. Say their call is monotonous. But I like to hear ’em. To me they make a pretty whistling.”

“Back when I was coming on, some folks said when the first whippoorwills of spring was heard you ought to get out and turn head over heels three times. They said it would keep you from having the backache during the year.”

“And there was another saying that when you hear the first whippoorwill of the year, you should walk three steps back, pick up whatever is under your heel, spit on it, and make a wish.”

“I’ve spent a lot of time listening to whippoorwills and observing their habits. A whippoorwill’s about 10 inches long. It has a small bill but a big head. And it’s got big eyes, tiny feet, and very long wings.”

“During the daytime the whippoorwill sleeps on the ground where its color blends in with the dead leaves. At night it feeds by waiting for insects from some perch or pursuing them swallow like and snapping them up in its huge maw.”

“The whippoorwill don’t make a nest like other birds. It lays only two eggs and they’re plain white or lightly spotted. It lays them on the ground among the leaves where they stand right out where you can see them if the bird leaves them.”

“The whippoorwill rolls them about until they hatch. I’ve seen the eggs over at the edge of the field in the morning and then over at the other edge late in the afternoon . . .”The whippoorwill’s loud, three-syllable whistled call is heard in the darkness more often than the bird is seen. As a matter of fact, you hardly ever see a whippoorwill.”


I hope you enjoyed the piece by John Parris. As you can tell, I’m still studying on whippoorwills.


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  • Reply
    May 30, 2017 at 7:44 pm

    I remember hearing them when growing up in PA as a child. I don’t remember hearing them many times in NC, if at all. But I do remember their call bringing a smile to my face when I heard them as a young’un.
    God bless.

  • Reply
    May 30, 2017 at 6:10 pm

    Tipper, I don’t hear whippoorwills but if you would please let me know when I should go outside and turn three somersaults I will give it my best shot. Anything to get rid of backaches for a year!!! Heck, it would be worth if for even a week!

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    May 30, 2017 at 2:29 pm

    Here is a question for somebody. What, if any, movie set within the summer range of the whipoorwill actually has a whipoorwill call in the sound track? I’d love to know the answer but haven’t a clue where or how to start to find an answer. I really appreciate books or movies that have these little authentic touches. I have been told I’m picky but of course that means those telling me that are not picky enough.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    May 30, 2017 at 1:16 pm

    EDIT: Just “Studying” someone can have evil or underhanded connotations.

  • Reply
    May 30, 2017 at 12:41 pm

    Think I’ve mentioned before that until recently, I had only heard chuck-will’s calling in central or south Texas but this summer, for the first time, I heard a whipporwill as well – and together they make a lovely duet.
    Must comment on Ken’s 2nd (at the end) explanation of the use of the word “study” : for the most part, at least to my understanding, he’s right on in the overall explanation; however, a seamstress will “study ” her customer before she begins to even cut the fabric to make sure the finished garment will not only fit but will also move with the customer; an artist will “study ” their subject before they render the subject in paint, charcoal, clay, or whatever media the artist is using; a preacher will study his congregation before deciding what direction to take with a sermon. Although sometimes “study on” might be used, even with leaving off the preposition, “study” alone is not necessarily offering evil or unkind intent.

  • Reply
    May 30, 2017 at 11:33 am

    I love the call of the Whippoorwill. The one we found under a root bank one time while posseum hunting musta been just a baby. This thing wasn’t bigger than an egg and it had little beady red eyes. I was amazed when Mr. Parris described it as being 10 inches long. I’ve never seen one since. …Ken

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    May 30, 2017 at 11:03 am

    I noticed you use of “studying on” in your last sentence. Study is a word that is sometimes used outside the mainstream in my corner of Appalachia.
    First is the verb “study” in the academic sense is the gathering of knowledge of a certain subject. The noun “study” is the compilation of that knowledge. You study about whippoorwills in order to do a study on whippoorwills.
    2. “Study” – to ponder, meditate or dwell upon. This is how I perceive your use of the word today. The word is most often followed by “on” or “about”. If the subject is a person “about” is more likely the choice. “Studying on” a person seems too personal while “studying about” them brings to bear their blessings or their plight. Just “Studying” someone has evil or underhanded connotations. “I noticed him studying me before it all happened!”
    3. “Study”- Held firmly in place. Unwavering. Anchored and solid! Non-natives most often use “Sturdy”
    4. “Study” – Rhythmic, constant, incessant, plodding. Appalachian for “Steady.”

  • Reply
    Pam Danner
    May 30, 2017 at 10:20 am

    I love the sound of the whippoorwills!

  • Reply
    May 30, 2017 at 9:50 am

    I really enjoy these reflections and observations of the whippoorwill. Nice illustration, too, as they are not the prettiest of birds.

  • Reply
    Vann Helms
    May 30, 2017 at 9:36 am

    I actually enjoy listening to their mournful call, especially just after sunset. I made this short video a couple weeks ago, just to capture that unique call. Vann

  • Reply
    George Pettie
    May 30, 2017 at 9:34 am

    Used to hear whip-poor-wills more often decades ago, when there was more mountain farming. They would call from where the field met the forest. A century ago it was said in the mountains that when someone died the whip-poor-will carried their spirit to the sky.

  • Reply
    Sue Crane
    May 30, 2017 at 8:57 am

    love the call of the whipperwill

  • Reply
    May 30, 2017 at 8:52 am

    The whippoorwill is what I call the mystery bird. That is because I have never seen one, but now I know why. I didn’t know they slept during the day. Their whistling at night is one of the most lonesome sounds I have ever heard. Thanks for sharing the very interesting article by John Parris.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    May 30, 2017 at 8:47 am

    Whipoorwills will hold on their “nest” until one gets very close then do a broken wing act to distract from their eggs. It is a challenge, having located a nest, to find the bird sitting on it when it has come back. They really do just disappear into the leaves.
    Their eyes reflect light at night if you ever get that close. I forget what color though, red or green or silver.

  • Reply
    Kimberly Burnette-Dean
    May 30, 2017 at 6:21 am

    The whippoorwill brings back so many memories for me. My grandpa and grandma lived across the road from us and we used to go sit on the front porch with them on summer evenings. There was nothing on television plus, it was too hot to stay in the house since no one had air conditioning. We would sit on the porch and talk about all sorts of things. One of the highlights would be hearing a whippoorwill call. I remember at that time (in the 1970s) grandpa would always remark that you just didn’t hear very many whippoorwills compared to what he used to hear in earlier years. It has been close to 30 years since I have heard that lonesome call. I would love to hear the beautiful call of the whippoorwill again!

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    May 30, 2017 at 5:29 am

    They do make an eerie sound, I’ve been listening to them. With their two eggs left on the ground and unattended some of the time it’s a wonder they are not extinct.
    Your picture looks like an old greeting card!

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