Whip-poor-wills provide one of nature’s most soulful melodies, yet many remain unaware that these nocturnal forest birds are now disappearing from our forests.
birds that are active at night have developed various adaptations for survival, including large eyes, camouflaged plumage and enhanced senses. Some even freeze if approached during daylight hours!
The onomatopoeic “whip-poor-will” call has long been a classic of summer night sounds across America. Henry David Thoreau described this sound as being like the moonlight wooing away their mate; in Miami (Myaamia) tribal tradition, this full moon in their fourth lunar month of each year is known as Whip-poor-will Moon; an Indian song in memory of this bird was “Wiihkoowia Kiilhswa.” Adult birds give sharp quirt or hisses when communicating with their mates; growl/hiss to defend territory against intruders or growl/hiss to drive off territorial intruders; sometimes adults make an occasional sharp quirt or hissing sound when communicating; growl/hisses to defend territorial boundaries against intruders or show signs of territorial aggression against foreign birds while occasionally flapping wings or flapping in distress indicates any aggression from territorial birds or strangers intruders!
The Whip-poor-will is a medium-sized bird belonging to the Caprimulgidae nightjar family. Distinguished by cryptically colored plumage and long tail, its upper parts consist of mottled gray, black, and brown patches while its underparts feature pale spots resembling freckling or spots; males and females each display white necklaces around their necks with black throat borders bordered by white border; large eyes provide night foraging opportunities.
Whip-poor-wills thrive in various forest habitats, particularly open understory forests with plenty of shrub oak and pitch pine barrens to provide space for roosting and nesting. Their preferred nest site may include depressions on the ground. Whip-poor-wills feed on insects both day and night but are active predators too – they feed by day but also during the night! Torpor, or hibernation-like state may take effect under harsh environmental conditions if needed.
Whip-poor-will populations have seen significant declines over the years. Their decline may be attributed to reduced breeding habitat as forests continue to be cleared for agriculture and development; their foraging habits put them at risk from traffic collisions; they nest underground making them susceptible to cats and other predators; ABC works alongside our partners in our Migratory Bird Conservation Initiative to address such threats.
Though well-known for its distinctive call, little is understood about the biology of Eastern Whip-poor-wills. Single pair breeding studies of Eastern Whip-poor-wills in New York, Ontario and Iowa have provided invaluable insights into nesting behavior, courtship and incubation as well as young development. A program to encourage open canopy early successional forest in pitch pine-scrub oak barrens while maintaining residual deciduous trees could create suitable habitat for breeding and roosting by Eastern Whip-poor-wills.
Potoos (pronounced POE-toes) are one of the oddest-looking nocturnal forest birds found in Belize. Belonging to the Nyctibius genus and composed of seven species, Potoos are squat birds with long wings and tails, big heads and enormous googly eyes; closely related to nightjars and frogmouths yet do not build nests nor make use of an owl’s flight pattern for locomotion.
At dusk or night, these solitary birds can often be found hunting flying insects from exposed perches in wooded and semiopen habitats. Although their plumage blends well with tree bark or looks like broken branch, their eyes reflect like brilliant amber coals when illuminated by flashlight. Their two notched eyelids allow them to open or close without ruining their camouflage and thus remain protected from potential predators.
The Northern Potoo is less commonly encountered, living at higher elevations in Colombia, Guyana and Brazil south to Brazil’s northern tip. It prefers midstory forest at high elevations with some sunlight for its habitat; and has more guttural calls that sound more like a shriek than haunting melodies of other potoo species.
Potoos utilize their eyeshines as beacons, while also using their long wings and tails to maneuver as they hunt insects through the forest. Perching on tree branches, they wait until an insect flies past before leaping down from above and snapping it up in their gaping mouths – typically beetles but also moths, grasshoppers, termites, bats or birds are often victims.
Though usually active at night, potoos tend to be most active during the day when resting in their roosts or calling at moonlit nights. Since they’re solitary feeders and typically find refuge alone, potoos serve an invaluable pollination service in forests nearby human communities and often can be found nearby.
Woodcock (Scolopax rusticola), one of the more unusual nocturnal forest birds, stands out as an odd-looking character during daytime by lying motionless among leaf litter and bark. At dawn and dusk however, these large wading birds become active hunters of worms, snails, caterpillars, spiders, moths as well as long straight bills that sweep across their environment quickly sweeping for prey through both sound detection as well as movement detection.
Other nocturnal forest birds are expert at staying hidden. Tawny frogmouths from Australia stand out in particular; with their cryptic plumage and habits such as spending their day resting with their mouth open snapping it shut if anything enters, making these rare birds virtually impossible to spot in nature. At night however they use beaks specially designed to catch flying insects for hunting insects.
Night-time hunters have many adaptations that help them thrive in the darkness, including larger eyes than diurnal birds to better see in low light conditions and more developed senses to pick up scents and sounds in low-light situations. Furthermore, they may freeze up or remain motionless to avoid drawing predators’ or humans’ attention.
Owls feature round or heart-shaped facial discs which gather and focus sound waves directly to their ears, enabling them to hear things hidden among foliage or snow more readily. Night birds also tend to possess greater sensing capabilities in their legs and feet to allow for improved navigation through difficult terrain such as snow.
The Corn Crake Crex crex (commonly referred to in Ireland as the landrail) is another of these rare and secretive forest birds. Although named for its breeding habits in cornfields, these birds actually nest across Europe in meadows, arable farmland or even woodland before migrating south for wintering in Africa. Unfortunately their range has seen sharp decrease due to modern farming practices which cause habitat clearing for their breeding season or harvesting before their breeding occurs.
As with other long-distance migratory birds, the Corn Crake is subject to fluctuations in population size and distribution over time. Studies have revealed these shifts are caused by hunting during migration or environmental change at stop-over sites or wintering areas; Ormston House is working alongside farmers and community activists within Special Protection Areas as part of the LIFE project to protect habitat quality for this bird while improving breeding conditions for this specie.
The kakapo, known for being plumper than goose and with the face of an owl and waddling like a duck, is the world’s only flightless parrot and one of the longest-lived birds (some reports indicate lifespans over 100 years). Even without wings to propel them upwards through trees, these impressive climbers still manage to excel as climbers using long legs as propellants to make themselves ascendable.
These unique creatures were unique to New Zealand forests, where there were no predatory birds that hunted during the day. Unfortunately, as soon as humans came along they introduced cats, rats, and weasel-like stoats into their ecosystem that quickly reduced populations until by 1977 the Kakapo was almost extinct.
As lek breeding birds, male kakapos use an elaborate system of tracks and bowls to attract females for mating. After courtship has concluded successfully, females lay one to four eggs in nests on the ground or rotten wood where only females participate in incubation and chick rearing responsibilities.
Once eggs hatch, chicks emerge completely blind and naked but unable to fly until fully fledged, which typically takes two years. Before then, they rely on their forest coloured plumage and cryptic markings as camouflage from predators – the musty-sweet smell also aiding them to blend in seamlessly with leaves and grasses – as a defense mechanism against potential danger. When threatened, instead of running away they freeze up instead, hoping the threat will pass by remaining motionless for too long a period.
Though they employ unique survival tactics, kakapo birds remain highly endangered with only 208 individuals left in the wild today. A great threat for such an ancient species that depends on genetic diversity for survival.
New Zealand’s Department of Conservation is working tirelessly with a group of dedicated volunteers to save the kakapo from extinction. At present, these birds live on two predator-free islands known as Codfish and Anchor that are strictly guarded by human caretakers and each has been given its own name – like Boomer Ruth or Sirocco – along with an ID number which will be recorded into a national database.