Out of memory and a still night, the sound of a whippoorwill


A whippoorwill, as drawn by artist Steven D’Amato for Audubon. Once you have heard the whippoorwill’s song, you will never forget it. Sadly, that song is rarely heard any more.

Has it ever happened to you that one of your senses – sight, perhaps, or smell, or hearing – recognizes something familiar to you but long gone? So long gone that, even though you are seeing that person or object (perhaps for the first time in decades), or smelling that long-ago scent, or hearing that sound that you’d almost forgotten, it takes your consciousness some time to even notice, let alone recognize, what exactly is the sight or smell or sound that your senses have caught?

It happened to me last night here at the Manse, a quiet summer evening after a perfect sunny day. Raymond and I were sitting in the living room, leafing through some interesting old books that he had bought at a recent auction. The only sounds were the night sounds outside our windows: insects and birds in the still air, and the very occasional car passing up or down Queensborough Road.

And then I heard, very softly, a different nightbird sound. I gave it no thought at first; and when I suddenly did, it was because I realized with a start that, very much without thinking, I’d picked up the bird’s familiar, long-ago song in my head, and was silently singing along with it – or perhaps it would be better to say marking its very distinct rhythm along with it.

It was a whippoorwill.

“There’s a whippoorwill!” I quietly exclaimed, overjoyed to hear a sound that was so familiar in my youth, but that I hadn’t heard in probably close to 40 years. Whippoorwills, you see, have largely disappeared from this part of the world where once they were so common. The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources explains (here):  “Eastern Whip-poor-wills were once widespread throughout the central Great Lakes region of Ontario, [but] their distribution in this area is now fragmented … Although there is some uncertainty surrounding the decline of the Eastern Whip-poor-will, the main threat to the species is [probably] habitat loss and degradation. The habitat loss is a result of natural changes when open fields and thickets become closed forest in the north, and intensive agriculture in the south.”

Given all that, perhaps you can see why I was so thrilled to hear a whippoorwill in Queensborough last night.

Now, I have two things to report as followup:

One: Raymond wondered what on earth I was so excited about. People, it turns out he has never heard a whippoorwill! (Or if he has, he didn’t know that it was a whippoorwill.) He had lived in cities all his life until our recent move to the Manse. And so, just as he is learning about other rural things, like crokinole and bitterns, he is now learning about whippoorwills.

Two: Unfortunately Raymond never did get to hear the whippoorwill last night. In an effort to hear it better, we went to the screen door of our darkened kitchen – and listened, and listened, and listened. But no whippoorwill sound came, and perhaps our very movement through the house and toward the door had frightened it off. I strained for a long time to hear that lovely old song again, so that Raymond might hear it too, but to no avail.

But I am sure of what I heard. I know the whippoorwill’s song, because I grew up with it. And, though I am not in general much of a believer in omens, I feel rather sure of one other thing: the song of a whippoorwill, heard once again after so many years, is a good and joyful sign.

You can be sure I will be listening again tonight.

12 thoughts on “Out of memory and a still night, the sound of a whippoorwill

  1. Having just looked up the whippoorwill on the Cornell allaboutbirds website, I know that I have never been lucky enough to hear it. Lucky you! An unforgettable call.

    • Brenda, I’m so surprised at that! I would have thought there’d be whippoorwills in Northern Ontario, where you used to live. Apparently they were not as common or well-known as I had thought.

  2. This whipoorwill will come out at two until four in the morning. Leave your bedroom window open and you should hear it every night. Once you hear it, it is nesting around your home in a fenced area and will call for its mate every night. Just like the crows in the daytime. True it isn’t everywhere. My aunt whose family was from the Cooper and Coe Hill area says that is what she misses most, are the whippoorwills at night. She always heard them in our area! Enjoy one of the greatest sounds of nature us country folk hear that the city folk do not.

  3. I’m sure Lu will post about the whippoorwills that serenade them in Conway, NH, which I was fortunate enough to experience when I was a guest at Lu and Dick’s last year! Like my brother, Raymond, I had never heard that birdsong before. It lasted well over an hour, and has an original song that can’t be forgotten, once experienced.

    • I knew Lu would respond to that, Eloise, and she has! I remembered her posting on Facebook a while back about the whippoorwill that wouldn’t stop “whip-poor-will”ing in the middle of the night. I can see how that would get bothersome if one were trying to sleep – but I have to say that, given the number of years since I’ve heard that happy nighttime sound, it would take me a long time to get bothered by it. Lu is so fortunate to live where the whippoorwills are still around!

  4. I, also went straight to the cornell ornithological bird sound website to listen to it. I’ll be alert for this beautiful call down the river from you now at night. Thanks for this post!

    • Does that mean that you had never heard a whippoorwill? I am so surprised by that! And I so much hope that you do, soon! (Because that will be further evidence that maybe the whippoorwills are coming back.)

      • Never – or maybe I just did not recognize it! Do I have to stay up late at night to succeed? Or maybe our barred owls are scaring them away. I’ll be all ears!!

      • Well, in my childhood here (and in Haliburton County, at the family farm in the summertime), the whippoorwills came out mid-evening: I would say between 8 and 10 p.m. So no, I don’t think you’ll have to stay up to all hours to hear them, if they are there to be heard. But your barred owls (lucky you!) might well be a factor in scaring off the few timid whippoorwills who might try to make a return stand (after all these years) in Elzevir Township.

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