Vermonters hope to hear the Whippoorwill

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(Host) On clear, moonlit nights some Vermonters are hoping they’ll hear a sound that’s becoming increasingly rare.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports:

(Whippoorwill call)

(Zind) The Whippoorwill has long had a special place in the imagination: Poet Emily Dickenson wrote about, “the Whippoorwill that everlasting sings, whose galleries are sunrise, whose opera, the springs.”

Hank Williams found something mournful in the evening song of the Whippoorwill.

(Williams sings) “Hear that lonesome Whippoorwill, he sounds to blue to fly “

(Zind) But the nocturnal bird that inspired these words has been mysteriously silenced. Bird surveys from around North America indicate that Whippoorwill numbers have been declining for fifty years.

(Renfrew) “The other and perhaps more compelling evidence is just what you hear from everyone. Everybody says that they used to have a Whippoorwill at their camp or behind their house and they don’t hear them anymore.”

(Zind) Rosalind Renfrew is with the Vermont Institute of Natural Science. Renfrew says no one’s sure to what extent and why Whippoorwills are in decline.

One theory is loss of habitat. Another is that efforts to control moths, which are key to the Whippoorwill’s diet, may also be hurting the bird.

Because they’re active at night, the best way to find a Whippoorwill is simply to stand outside on a quiet, moonlit evening and listen.

If the nights are clear over the next few days, the weather, the time of year and the full moon will make for the year’s best opportunity to hear a Whippoorwill.

(Renfrew) “They believe that the hatching of the chicks is synchronized with the full moon. Because on clear nights when its lighter out they forage for the entire night rather than just feeding on moths right during dawn or dusk, so that the parents can get enough food to feed the chicks when they’re first hatching. That’s the theory, anyway.”

(Zind) Whippoorwills like to nest in woods adjacent to clearings. They also like to frequent gravel pits.

Whippoorwills were never common in Vermont, but it’s still possible on a quiet summer evening to hear the call of the bird that has inspired so many.

(Whippoorwill call)

(Zind) For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

(sung) “When Whippoorwill’s call, and evening is nigh, I hurry to my blue heaven.”

Note:To report a Whippoorwill or volunteer for the bird survey, call Rosalind Renfrew at the Vermont Institute of Natural Science at

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