Wed. Nov 29th, 2023
Saving the Invisible: Managing the Eastern Whip Poor People's Habitat in Pinery

For some, it is the song of the summer. For others, it is the song that announces impending doom. It was part of what made Hank Williams feel so alone, but many find his presence too enveloping.

Whatever your interpretation, it’s easy to learn this bird’s classic “WHUP-poor-WILL” song.

A highly camouflaged bird, active on warm summer nights, the Eastern Whiplash is heard much more often than it is seen. Their distinctive onomatopoeic song is a mainstay in the campgrounds of Pinery Provincial Park.

However, the presence of the eastern whip of ill will should not be taken for granted. His songs are fading from our area.

Fortunately, with the help of Friends of Pinery Park and the Habitat Stewardship Program, Pinery is uniquely positioned to address this decline.

The “noisy cave mouth”

The Eastern Whip-poor-will’s Latin name is even more descriptive than its self-identifying common name: Antrostomus vociferante loosely translates to “noisy cave mouth.”

The bird is certainly loud and reportedly sings up to fifty-nine times. per minute, with singing episodes lasting more than fifteen minutes. For people trying to rest after a day in the park, noise is a generous prospect.

“Cave Mouth” seems cruel, but accurate. Whip-poor wills feed at night, using their large, cavernous mouths to hunt insects in flight. Their mouths are also lined with bristly whiskers that can help detect the movement of prey in front of them.

Feeding exclusively on insects, in the dark and without the aid of echolocation, poor-willed whips use a combination of visual adaptations to feed effectively.

An oriental whip of ill will on a branch.The long, whisker-like bristles of the eastern ill-will whipper can help capture insect prey. Photo: Terry Crabe

Their large, dark eyes capture available light, allowing them to see their prey in low-light conditions. Some of the light is reflected on your retinas by a reflective membrane called bright carpet which improves night vision and creates a visible bright orange eye glow.

Ultimately, the success of feeding poor whips depends on vision and requires open spaces. As a result, poor whips are often found feeding and nesting near the edges of forested areas, sparsely wooded wetlands, and savannahs.

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A beloved species

Temagami Ojibwa tradition suggests that singing the whip of poor will brings misfortune to the listener. However, the growing absence of poor people’s songs in our area should worry everyone even more.

The loss of suitable habitat and the general reduction in available insect prey are the main causes of the decline in the Eastern Whip’s ill will. This species is listed as threatened in Ontario, and its populations are declining by approximately 2.7% per year.

An oriental whip of ill will in the grass.An oriental whip of ill will demonstrating a “display of broken wings.” This behavior is simply an act intended to distract potential predators and divert attention from the nest site.

The decline in southwestern Ontario is evident. The conversion of the area to agriculture combined with the intensive use of broad-spectrum insecticides has driven the poor from their former refuges.

Now, the region’s poor are restricted primarily to the few remaining tracts of natural space, including Pinery Provincial Park.

If we are to secure this species’ place in southern Ontario, Pinery will need to find ways to accommodate and support the recovery of this at-risk population.

A light in the dark

Remaining suitable habitats, including the Pinery oak savanna, are threatened by the spread of invasive plants, which can quickly dominate the savanna understory. Over time, these invaders close off the forest and reduce the open spaces the poor need to search for food.

boot brushUse the boot brushes at the Pinery trailheads to clean your boots and help stop the spread of invasive species.

In response, the park has attempted to slow the spread of invasive plants through prescribed burning, direct plant removal, and installing boot brushes at trailheads.

All this hard work seems to be paying off!

Over the past decade, poor occupancy in the park has increased by approximately 3.2%. by year. However, we can do more for our willing poor.

Enter: the Habitat Management Program.

This program is administered by Friends of Pinery Park. Together, we aim to create habitat for at-risk species, such as the eastern ill-willed whiptail and many others, that require open woodlands to survive.

Two poor-willed eggs of the eastern whiptail on the ground. A typical nest of poor oriental whips. Ontario whip-poorers often lay only two eggs per year in little more than a depression in the forest floor.

The Habitat Management Program provides additional assets that are used to create productive habitat. It primarily focuses on removing the park’s historic pine plantations, creating nesting habitats, and monitoring at-risk species within the Pinery.

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Through the continued efforts of Pinery and the assistance of the Habitat Stewardship Program, we are returning light to spaces too dark for the poor to feed, nest, and thrive!

Same lyrics, different song.

Long-term recovery requires suitable habitat and Pinery is a key provider. Creating and maintaining these habitats is not easy, but a few simple actions can go a long way to protecting these birds.

Pinery visitors can contribute to the recovery of the poor in many ways:

First, limit the spread of invasive plants by using the boot brushes found at park trailheads and avoid going off trail while walking.

Staying on the path will not only limit the spread of invaders, but will also prevent disturbance to ground-nesting poor whips.

hiker sitting on a bench next to the trail

Maintaining open habitats, whether insect havens like wetlands or nesting areas like savanna, will help increase our poor-willed population.

Be aware of the use of insecticides. Select products that provide adequate and specific protection for the desired plants while maintaining the insect community.

An Eastern Whipfish (poor will) was seen incubating eggs in Pinery Provincial Park last year.An Eastern Whiptail was seen incubating eggs last year in Pinery Provincial Park

Finally, keeping cats indoors eliminates the risk of the poor whips and their eggs becoming a feline feast. Because they nest on the ground, poor-willed whiptails and their young are extremely vulnerable to predation.

Observe and report

If you notice the poor whips singing during your visit, do not approach or disturb them in any way.

Instead, report them to citizen science projects like eBird, iNaturalist, and NatureCounts, or directly to the Visitor Center.

Contributing to active monitoring of the poor will help researchers track current population trends.

You may also consider donating to Ontario Parks or becoming a member of Friends of Pinery Park to support initiatives like the Habitat Stewardship Program that actively protects at-risk species and their habitats.

A girl of oriental ill will.A girl of oriental ill will. The young of this species are semi-precocious, meaning they can move independently after birth, but still depend on their parents for food.

Here at Pinery, the call of the ill-will whip is a sign of our habitat management at work. It fills us with joy and pride.

Keep your ears open next time you visit the park. We hope you will hear their haunting call and join us in helping protect this special species.