Category Archives: Quick Guides

Finding Your First Whip-poor-will

 

Photo by David Larson

A drab bird with a startling call, the Whip-poor-will’s perfect camouflage belies its incredible voice. This nocturnal hunter can broadcast its loud, rhythmic whistle as many as 10,000 times over the course of one night. Wherever Whip-poor-wills live, their sound is as much a part of a summer evening as the familiar chirp of crickets and the whirr of cicadas.

Where’d All The Whip-poor-wills Go?

“Whip-poor-will” is practically a household name. But far more people have heard of them than have actually heard their call. This is no accident—the species has been in trouble since the turn of the 20th century.

Whip-poor-wills’ decline has largely followed the decline of large moths, their favorite food. Recently, a landmark study showed that Whip-poor-wills and other insect-eating birds have been feeding on less and less nutritious prey, as their choices are diminished by pesticide use and habitat destruction.

The Key to Whip-poor-will Habitat

Whip-poor-wills have two main habitat requirements. Firstly, their preference for the largest insects means they require healthy ecosystems that can support Luna moths, Catocala moths, and big grasshoppers. Whip-poor-wills will avoid areas with urban or suburban development, or where pesticide spraying reduces the numbers of large insects. This does not mean that they are averse to open areas—Whip-poor-wills are often found in small agricultural fields, as long as there is little or no chemical disturbance.

Secondly, Whip-poor-wills avoid forests with thick understories and midstory vegetation. While they prefer habitats with some tree cover, they need an open midstory to snatch insects on the wing, and they need bare ground to perch. They are often found in open woodland like pine barrens, as well as small open areas near denser wooded ecosystems—but rarely, if ever, in large tracts of dense thickets.

Sites to Search for Whip-poor-wills

Most places in Massachusetts no longer fit the above criteria with the exceptions of the southeastern and central-west part of the state.

In Plymouth County, try driving the roads of Myles Standish State Forest just after dark.

On Cape Cod, the pine barrens of Wellfleet and Truro often have high densities of Whip-poor-wills; roads through pine barrens between route 6 and the Atlantic beaches are reliable, and even residential roads adjacent to pine barrens can be productive. Crane Wildlife Management Area on the upper cape is also great.

Closer to Boston, you’ll occasionally have luck in the Blue Hills Reservation and on ranger-led programs at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island (which closes at dusk).

Most places around Quabbin Reservoir and the wilder areas of the Connecticut River Valley are excellent for Whip-poor-wills, but few human observers look there at night. If you see a Whip-poor-will out there, report it on eBird, or let us know in the comments!

 

Backyard Oddball: A “White-capped” Chickadee

In case our readers are tired of the endless news stories about the yellow Northern Cardinal in Alabama, a surprising color variant of a Black-capped Chickadee has shown up recently in our home state of Massachusetts.

A private homeowner in Charlton sent us some pictures of the bird, which was coming to her feeders.

©Laurie Dearnley

A partially leucistic Black-capped Chickadee in Charlton. ©Laurie Dearnley

In some ways, this bird looks more like a tit from the Eurasian genus Cyanistes—a group very closely related to North America’s chickadees.

However, Wayne Petersen and David Sibley confirmed that this bird’s body shape and plumage is indeed consistent with a partially leucistic Black-capped Chickadee.

What is Leucism?

Leucism is a genetic condition that prevents a bird’s body from depositing pigments in feathers, leaving some parts of the bird white or paler than normal. Leucism is not to be confused with albinism. Albino birds only lack a single pigment (melanin) responsible for producing blacks and browns, but the issue is not getting the pigment where it needs to be—albino birds simply do not produce melanin at all.  While these birds end up with no black or brown anywhere (even in the eye!) they might retain other colors like reds and yellows.  In leucistic birds, any or all colors could appear paler than normal, but their eyes (and often their skin) will be dark.

This bird is particularly fascinating because while it has retained some pigment in its feathers and its legs are partially dark, its toes are pink and unpigmented. Normally, a bird with partially pigmented feathers will have full pigmentation on its bare parts. Transporting pigment to living tissue (skin) is biologically easier than to dead tissue (feathers). It’s quite rare for a bird with partial leucism to have bare parts that are pale, and even rarer for a bird’s bare parts to be half dark and half pale.

Bird Pigments: Form Meets Function

Pigments often serve vital functions for birds beyond what we might expect. Feathers with melanin, for example, are stronger and more resistant to wear and tear than unpigmented feathers. This may be why some birds, like many gulls, have black outer edges on their otherwise-white wings. Female birds may also read certain plumage traits to indicate the physical health of potential mates. Several studies have correlated bright pigmentation with healthy immune systems in species from Zebra Finches to Red-winged Blackbirds (although never any chickadee species), and many birds with aberrant plumage show decreased mating success. Finally, birds with abnormally pale feathers tend to stick out visually, and run a greater risk of predation.

But even if this particular Black-capped Chickadee has a difficult (or short) life ahead of it, we think it’s beautiful just the way it is.

Please consider supporting our bird conservation work by making a donation today. Thank you!