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  • Dr. Ron Bright

Name a Bird That Exemplifies Onomatopoeia: Hint - its initials are WPW

Updated: Aug 28, 2021

Some words in the English language fascinate me. I have my favorites based on the sound and texture these words create when you utter them. Some are quirky (like “sphincter”), some are cool sounding (like “smidgeon” and “perpetuity”) and others are favorites because of their flowing and smooth characteristics : “onomatopoeia”. C’mon now, you know you like it (in spite of your difficulty spelling it), especially when you say it again and again. This is a good segue to describing briefly some of my favorite onomatopoeic words. A starter word is “buzz” maybe because we have a lot of “buzzing” around our ranch with the female bees in hot pursuit of pollen and honey. Another one is self-induced when I finish my cereal every morning: this one is a beauty for me……..”slurp”! It may be the most closely aligned word to fulfill the criterion of being onomatopoeic! Some others include the “boom” of fireworks, the “vroom” of a car engine, and the “hiss” of a snake! Since this is a nature blog about birds let’s list some bird-related words like “cuckoo” and “chickadee.” But the bird word in this category I wish to write about is the “whip-poor will”. This is a bird that I have had a love-hate relationship for years, but mostly love now.

The “hate” part began when I was a youngster living in the country on a small farm in southeastern Ohio. The front 3 acres of the property had a yard large enough to shag flyballs, a basketball court at the beginning of our driveway, and way too much grass for me to mow when it was my turn! However, the back 2 acres was a beautiful example of nature including a hill with a great deal of declivity down to a creek and filled with all kinds of deciduous and coniferous trees. Black raspberry plants and morrell mushrooms were a lovely bonus alongside the creek bed!

We all know how important sleep is when traveling through puberty! However, when you are sleeping in a double bed with your older brother in June, July, and August and air conditioning is a thing of the future, a good night’s sleep becomes a challenge. Southeastern Ohio’s heat in the summer can be oppressive especially when the humidity is sky high, and you have to sleep with the windows open to get air circulation. Tossing and turning was the norm with sleep wedged in between! Enter the whip-poor-will.

Whip poor will. Louis Agassiz Fuertes (1874-1927), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A short whip-poor-will profile is in order. This species is mostly an eastern bird with a Mexican whip-poor-will at one time thought to be the same species. Its range is mostly east of the Mississippi River and extends into Mexico. This bird is considered one of 9 nightjars all of which are active at night (to my pubertal chagrin)! They nest on the ground and often sit on a branch waiting for an insect to come by and be swallowed. They are solitary and their coloration is ideal camouflage for their environment. They are part of group of nightjars and hawks known collectively as goatsuckers. They were erroneously thought to enter barns at night and suckle on goats. (Sibley)

Besides foraging at night, they also sing their lovely, (or, not so lovely), lullaby. (Hear the whip-poor-will call from the Cornell Ornithology Lab by clicking here.) “Not-so-lovely” was the case in my youth. This sound, although beautiful to me today, was NOT so adorable when it was repetitive and lasted through the night and well into the wee hours of the morning! Combine the repetitive song with heat, humidity, sweating like a hog, and sleeping with a big “lug” of a brother taking his half of the bed out of the middle, the result was a “perfect storm” for insomnia. As a result, the next day I was greatly annoyed and cranky! I think my serious attempt at cussing began in the wee hours of those summer mornings. The whip-poor-will “song” was insufferable and seemed to last forever! My kingdom for a good pair of ear plugs!

I have been away from the Midwest for over 6 decades and oh how I now yearn for the lovely sound of the whip-poor-will! I would welcome it anytime of the evening or early hours of the morning since my older age has rendered me somewhat of an insomniac! Repetition would be a blessing now! Absence DOES indeed make the heart grow fonder.

About 2 years ago I had a delightful and joyful experience with one of the whip-poor-will’s cousins. My wife and I were having dinner on the deck of some dear friends where we live in Colorado. Darkness had just set in, and it was quiet and peaceful. Suddenly, without warning I heard a whip-poor-will with an absence of the “whip”. Oh my goodness….my very first time hearing a common poor-will! A ‘lifer’! Suddenly my bad memories of its relative, the whip-poor-will, transformed into sweet memories of my childhood and this bird’s sounds coming from the woods below my house.

Because of their nocturnal nature, getting photographs was impossible for me so refer to your favorite bird ID book! You will notice a lot of morphometric similarities between the birds in this nightjar category.



Sibley, David Allen: The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America Copyright 2003 by Chanticleer Press, Inc.

All About Birds, Cornell Ornithology Lab,

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Stephen Birchard
Stephen Birchard
Apr 13, 2021

Wonderful article Ron. It brought back memories of my childhood trips to Oklahoma to visit my grandparents. When I was a kid I idolized my grandpa. Each evening we would hear the classic call: whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will; something I had never heard in the suburbs of South Jersey. He taught me about the birds and the Oklahoma countryside. They had about 20 some acres of untouched land and it was like heaven to me; horned lizards, terrapins, armadillos, and the nightly serenade of the whip poor wills.

Thanks for bringing those memories back to life for me.


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