June 28, 2009


The other day I saw three wild turkeys while walking to work. Pretty exciting, but I crossed the street because those things can be mean! I enjoyed seeing the turkeys, but the bird I would really like to see (but haven't) is a whippoorwill.

Whippoorwills get their name because of their call, which sounds like "Whip poor Will." They tend to nest in open fields near woods, so my chances of seeing one in Boston are low.

Some good spooky folklore has developed about these little birds over time. According to Rev. Samuel Peters 1781 book General History of Connecticut, whippoorwills were able to predict storms, but by the 19th century Clifton Johnson also recorded the eerie belief that if a whippoorwill sings near a house, it is a sign of impending death (although some of his informants claimed it is only a sign of trouble.)

The bird's sinister reputation was cemented by the famed horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, who drew heavily on New England folklore when writing his stories of cosmic terror. In the early 20th century, Lovecraft discussed whip-poor-wills with his friend Edith Miniter, a resident of Wilbraham, Massachussetts, who told him:

"It is whispered that they linger and flutter around houses where death is approaching, hoping to catch the soul of the departed as it leaves. If the soul eludes them, they disperse in quiet disappointment; but sometimes they set up a chorused clamour which makes the watchers turn pale and mutter - with that air of hushed, awestruck portentousness which only a backwoods Yankee can assume - "They got 'im!" (quoted in Lovecraft's The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, ed. by S.T. Joshi. New York, Penguin Books, 2001)

Lovecraft incorporated this piece of lore into his popular story The Dunwich Horror, which spread the belief in the whippoorwill's soul snatching abilities and has kept it alive into the 21st century.

It's possible that these beliefs about whippoorwills originated with the local Indians. For example, a video available on the Mohegan tribe Web site mentions the belief that makiwasug, or magical little people, would travel through the forest at night in the shape of whipppoorwills. It looks like the whippoorwills reputation became more sinister over time and as it moved across cultures.


Spurwing Plover said...

Whipoorwills if anyone has ever watched a western or frntteer movie knows this bird familiar call

Rich Clabaugh said...

Thanks for the eerie bit of lore Peter! I'll have to familiarize myself with their call, just in case.