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Whip-poor-will Delight

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Published on: Aug. 2, 1995

Last revision: Oct. 25, 2010

A third of a century ago I came to the southwest Missouri Ozarks to escape the environment of "the big city." Table Rock Lake was brand new and was shining in the sunlight of great promise. The lake shore was verdant and unspoiled.

I felt relieved to be away from the proverbial hustle and bustle of the city. It was a novelty to hear insects and other small beasties racketing along in the night, instead of sirens and the constant roar of passing freeway traffic.

A novelty at first, the whip-poor-will soon became as obnoxious and grating as the city's sirens. I initially assumed the bird was some petite feathered songster like a lark or, perhaps, a dainty mockingbird. After a few months, during which time the unseen bird kept endlessly whacking away at the same three monotonous notes, my attitude toward the bird underwent a serious decline.

One night, unable to sleep for the bird's endless sawing away, I decided to investigate. In slippers and underwear, teeth clenched and trusty flashlight in hand, I went from the kitchen door to seek out this strange animal. I waited to be sure that the closing screen door had not disturbed the bird, but I needn't have worried. I later discovered that whip-poor-wills are as difficult to ruffle as they are to silence.

I stalked quietly across the lawn, homing in on the repetitious tootling. In the starlit darkness, I ascertained the bird was pouring forth his three note melody from the lower branches of a scrub oak tree.

I sneaked to within a few yards of the tree and the bird was no more than four or five feet above my head.

My closeness made little difference to the whip-poor-will. He kept rasping away at his song, over and over again, as though he had nothing better to do and absolutely no better place to be.

I had to see this creature and, I hoped, silence him. Taking careful aim at the place where my ears told me he should be, I pointed the flashlight, sharpened my eyes to gimlet points, braced for the view and flipped the switch.

Whip-poor-wills deeply resent being disturbed by humans and flashing lights just as they are revving up their crescendo. The thing snapped off its music system, went instantly into flight mode and came down out of the scrub oak like a gigantic bat after a moth.

The thing was no tiny lark! In the dark the bird seemed as large as a leather-winged pterodactyl and twice as dangerous. I imagined glaring red eyes and flashing teeth in the gleam of my quivering flashlight. I hunkered down and threw one arm protectively over my head.

Although deeply resentful, the whip-poor-will was not vicious or attack prone. It swooped closely over my head and vanished into the night. With the fear of imminent doom behind me, I stood up.

The little flashlight hadn't quite the power to show me the retreating monster's size or shape, but at least the raucous three note songfest was at last over.

I clumped back across the lawn, thumped the kitchen screen and fumbled my way into the bedroom. Through the open windows I heard cicadas, crickets, tree-frogs and other denizens of the night sing cheerfully.

It was 4 a.m. In just two hours I would have to once more drop my feet to the floor and begin another day. Recalling my fright at the monster's "attack," I tried on a slight grin to see if it helped my attitude. The happy-face soothed my ruffled spirits and soon my eyes began to sag in a wonderfully welcome approach to sleep.

Just as I was drifting off, my sleep-fogged mind heard the clearing of a professional feathered throat. There was a tentative "mi, mi, mi" and once more my nemesis was in full voice. "Whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will."

Somehow, despite the nutty night-bird, I drifted off to sleep.

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