Recently my older brother Robert from Texas was visiting, and we stood out on my front porch late one evening.
“Listen. A whip-poor-will,” I said.
He listened. “That’s a chuck-will’s-widow.”
I didn’t argue. He is my big brother, after all.
But I’ve been listening to whip-poor-wills all my life, and my dad used to reflect fondly on hearing them in Amite County when he was a boy, so I reckon I know a whip-poor-will when I hear one.
As fate would have it, a few days later the Mississippi State University Extension Service posted an article on nightjars, a family of birds that includes Eastern whip-poor-wills and chuck-will’s-widows.
Writer Bill Hamrick claimed, “Living in northeast Mississippi, I hear both species calling at night because their ranges overlap in the north half of the state. Residents of south Mississippi will hear only chuck-will’s-widows.”
I mentioned the topic to two of my neighbors, both in their 70s.
“I read that what we call whip-poor-wills are actually chuck-will’s-widows,” I informed them.
“Chuck what?” they said.
I went online to check out the ranges of the two birds. The chuck-will’s-widow lives throughout the southern quarter of the nation, including here.
The Eastern whip-poor-will inhabits the eastern half of the nation — with the exception of the Deep South, which includes us.
It does migrate here for the winter, but the ones I hear are in the spring and summer.
Songs tell the tale
To settle the question once and for all, I listened to recordings of both birds on youtube.
Much as I hate to say it, my brother and Bill Hamrick were right. What I’ve been calling whip-poor-wills — and what my dad called them, and probably everyone I know calls them — are actually chuck-will’s-widows.
A whip-poor-will sounds like this: “whip poor WILL,” with a trill on the “poor.”
The chuck-will’s-widow goes like this: “chuck, will’s WIDow; chuck, will’s WIDow.” Although to my ears it sounds more like “click, whip poor WILL,” but what do I know?
It’s not like you can look at the birds and tell the difference. They’re so camouflaged as to be nearly invisible, nest on the ground and are mainly nocturnal.
Mockingbird or thrasher?
Next thing you know, somebody will tell me a mockingbird isn’t a mockingbird.
Could happen. The songs of the mockingbird and the brown thrasher are almost identical.
But in this case the birds look different — a mockingbird is gray and a brown thrasher, obviously, is brown — and they do come out in the daytime where you can see them.
As far as I’m concerned, the melodious and ever-varied call I’ve heard all my life is a mockingbird.
Besides, nobody writes songs about brown thrashers, much less novels. “To Kill a Brown Thrasher?” I don’t think so.
Let’s hear it for bobwhites
One bird song that, so far as I know, is not in dispute is that of the bobwhite quail. And I’ve been hearing several of them this year.
Their call is obvious and unmistakable: “bob-WHITE, bob-WHITE.”