- Minnesota Breeding Bird Distribution
- Breeding Habitat
- Population Abundance
- Literature Cited
A regular breeding species and migrant in Minnesota forests; the Eastern Whip-poor-will was an uncommon species during the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (MNBBA).
Largely restricted to the eastern deciduous forest biome, the Eastern Whip-poor-will is found in southern Canada, from central Alberta east to the Maritime Provinces, and in the north-central United States south as far as northern Arkansas and east to South Carolina. The Eastern Whip-poor-will is sparsely distributed throughout its range; the limited data available for this crepuscular species suggest that the highest breeding densities occur in the Central Hardwoods Region of southern Missouri (Figure 1).
Assigned a Continental Concern Score of 14/20 and placed on the 2016 Yellow Watch List by Partners in Flight; designated a Species in Greatest Conservation Need by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
A medium-distance migrant that winters along the Gulf coast and in Central America.
Eggs are laid directly on the forest floor.
Because the Eastern Whip-poor-will’s nighttime call is so unique, Roberts (1932) found many accounts from early explorers commenting on the species’ presence and abundance, including from Johnathan Carver and Henry Schoolcraft in the late 1700s and early 1800s. The species was described as common or abundant from sites as widespread as the Red River valley (1873), central Minnesota (1870), and the Twin Cities (1874). Yet, when Roberts wrote his treatise on Minnesota birds in the early 1900s, he lamented its demise in the vicinity of Minneapolis:
As the woods and undergrowth were thinned and destroyed to make way for the developing city, the call became less and less frequent until now it is rarely heard, only an occasional passing bird, spring and fall, stopping for a night or two to utter a mournful requiem for its numerous, long-since-departed fellows.
Although the species was largely absent at the time from developed regions in the state, it remained locally common in areas where forests had been left undisturbed. Roberts reported 5 nesting records, which stretched from as far south as Wabasha and Goodhue Counties in southeastern Minnesota, to Hennepin and Stearns Counties in central Minnesota, and north to Lake of the Woods County on the Canadian border. The Lake of the Woods report was only of a nest; all others were nests with eggs.
Many years later, Green and Janssen (1975) wrote that whip-poor-wills were a summer resident throughout the state’s forested regions, although very scarce in northeastern Minnesota and the adjacent counties of Itasca and Koochiching. Absent from the western grasslands, it was most abundant in southeastern Minnesota as well as in several northwestern and north-central counties, specifically Beltrami, Clearwater, Lake of the Woods, Marshall, and Roseau.
In a review of the species’ summer distribution in 1985, Wilson noted the whip-poor-will was widely distributed across Minnesota’s woodlands. Nevertheless, “it occurs only locally, failing to occupy most forested habitats” (Wilson 1985).
An updated account a few years later by Janssen (1987) remarked that whip-poor-wills were “numerous” along the Mississippi River. Elsewhere the species was “well-represented” in the Anoka Sand Plain Subsection, on the northern edge of the Twin Cities metropolitan region, and farther north, in northwestern and north-central Minnesota. Nevertheless, since 1970, nesting had been confirmed in only 6 counties: Anoka, Lake, Marshall, Polk, Sherburne, and Washington. By 1998, Hertzel and Janssen had added only 1 additional county, Winona.
By 2014, the Minnesota Biological Survey had reported 67 breeding season locations for whip-poor-wills during its field studies. The majority of records were confined to the Laurentian Mixed Forest and Tallgrass Aspen Parklands Provinces. Within the Laurentian Mixed Forest Province, there were two centers of abundance; one in northern St. Louis and Itasca Counties, and a second in the Brainerd Lakes area, including portions of Crow Wing, Morrison, Wadena, and Hubbard Counties. Several records were also found within the Minnesota River valley as far west as Yellow Medicine County and as far south as the county line between Cottonwood and Murray Counties (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources 2016).
During the MNBBA, participants reported 214 Eastern Whip-poor-will records in 3.3% (155/4,747) of the surveyed atlas blocks and in 2.7% (63/2,337) of the priority blocks. Breeding evidence was reported in only 6 blocks (Figures 2 and 3; Table 1). In total, the birds were reported in 28 of Minnesota’s 87 counties and were reported nesting in 7 counties; 1 block with confirmed nesting in the Minnesota River valley straddled 2 counties (Redwood and Renville).
Despite the difficulty of surveying this crepuscular species, atlas records reaffirm its patchy distribution. The majority of records were located within the Laurentian Mixed Forest and the Tallgrass Aspen Parklands Provinces. Records in southern Minnesota were largely limited to the Anoka Sand Plain Subsection, southeastern Dakota County, eastern Goodhue County, and the upper Minnesota River valley. The extent to which the species’ range has changed in the past 100 years is not entirely clear, but certainly the major river valleys of southeastern Minnesota no longer represent the species’ stronghold in the state as noted by Green and Janssen (1975).
Although many states have noted major population declines and local extirpations due to the loss of forest cover, no major change in the whip-poor-will’s overall breeding distribution has been documented. Nearby, the species disappeared from North Dakota decades ago (Cink et al. 2017). In Ontario, Ohio, and Michigan, the number of townships and/or blocks reporting whip-poor-wills declined 50% to 58% between completion of their first and second atlases, but its overall distribution changed very little (Cadman et al. 2007; Rodewald et al. 2016; Chartier et al. 2013). In Wisconsin, the state’s first atlas documented that although the species still occurred across the state, its distribution had become “much more patchy and disjunct” than depicted by earlier accounts (Cutright et al. 2006).
*Note that the definition of confirmed nesting of a species is different for Breeding Bird Atlas projects, including the definition used by the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas, compared with a more restrictive definition used by the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union. For details see the Data Methods Section.