I had almost given up. I wasn’t worried that spring would never come, but that something had happened to the whippoorwills. Had they forsaken this troubled planet?
They’re not really whippoorwills, and they don’t even make the whip-poor-will sound, but that’s what we call them here in rural Florida. If I told a neighbor I heard a Chuck-wills-widow call last night, I’d get a blank stare that would last into next week. If I say I heard a whippoorwill, I’d have full understanding.
You can’t describe their call as a song. It sounds almost like they’re spitting out, “Chuck! Will’s widow,” or something like that. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings described it as, “Chip hell out of the red oak.” You can find a recording here: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Chuck-wills-widow/id. On summer nights, I can hear several in the woods around me, calling ceaselessly through the night, the same call over and over. Sometimes one comes close to the house, but if I go outside to try to locate it—immediate silence.
I’ve never seen one clearly enough to recognize it. They are active mostly at night and are so well camouflaged they blend in with dead leaves and tree bark during the day. Sometimes, driving down the road at night, a bird will suddenly shoot up from the roadway and fly off. That’s a Chuck-wills-widow that has been picking up grit from the road. I suppose they sometimes get hit by cars. I read that their numbers are declining—the usual story— pesticides and loss of habitat. They must be too shy to stick around when their forests are taken over by housing developments. They don’t build nests, but lay eggs on the ground, which puts them at risk despite their camouflage. They’re vulnerable to pesticides because their diet is mostly insects, although they’ve been known to eat small birds and even bats.
I hear them only from March through July. They winter in the Caribbean and Central America, but I don’t know what they do in late summer and fall.
I wasn’t too surprised they were late this spring. We had another weird winter. Winters in Florida are typically weird, but these last two were worse. Not hard winters, but warm for the most part, and late. My dog fennel, loyal predictor of the first frost, has been dead wrong two years in a row. No frost in November, as predicted. Not until after Christmas.
Last spring I still had nearly a full cord of firewood left over. I usually stock up before my firewood man goes away for hunting season, but I didn’t run low until after the first frost. When I called him, he delivered right away and said I was lucky to catch him before he took one last trip to his hunt camp. After the second frost, it appeared my supply would last me again into the next fall.
A few weeks before Spring Break, I had the school kids start tomato plants and told them that after the break we should be past the threat of frost and could set the plants out in their gardens. Boy was I wrong! After the children returned to school, we were hit with the coldest spell of the winter. I woke to a half inch of ice in the bird bath.
(I can hear you northerners saying, “Now really, just get over it!” I know. You’re digging out from under three feet of snow. Spend a few winters here and see how soft you get!)
So, we held back on planting our spring gardens. Everyone I talked to said they hadn’t heard a whippoorwill yet, either. The next part of the conversation goes something like, “My mama/granny/grandpa always said we can have frost up ‘til Easter.” This year, Easter comes in the middle of April! Can Spring really be so late? The whippoorwills have never been this late. What’s wrong?
On mild nights, I slept with a window open, hoping to hear one call. If the night was too cool, I’d step out on the porch every few hours to listen. March melted away, but no whippoorwill.
Finally, on March 30th, I heard the call! Far away, faint, and short lived, one called. My world was set right again. I heard the promise of Spring, and it was music to my ears.