When Elaine and I first moved into our Botetourt County, Virginia home in August of 1989, we regularly heard whip-poor-wills on late spring and summer evenings. As someone who has a passion for spring gobbler hunting, I often enjoyed hearing these birds, which along with chuck-wills-widows are members of the nightjar family, during trips as I waited for the first gobble of the morning.
This spring, I have hunted in Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee and have only heard whip-poor-wills once and chuck-wills-widows only at two places. It's true, of course, that one rarely hears both species of nightjars in the same place, as chucks, at 12 inches in length, are two inches longer than whips - and size does matter in the wild world.
Thus chucks often out compete their smaller relatives and when chucks move in, whips move out. For example, one of the two places that I have heard chucks is behind our house as when that species showed up in the late 1990s, it was not long until the whip-poor-wills disappeared. Yet, we only have heard one singing chuck-wills-widow behind our house, as that species' numbers are likewise in decline.
A variety of reasons have been offered for the decline in whip-poor-wills as their numbers have dropped throughout the Eastern United States. Pesticides, habitat change, and lack of logging in many places have been a few of the reasons listed. Whip-poor-wills require early successional habitat to thrive and a lack of timber cutting has become the norm in the East's national forests.
Whip-poor-wills winter from the Gulf States south to Honduras, so wintering habitat loss could also be an issue. Whatever the reason for the population decline, the whips and chucks are integral parts of the East's ecosystem as they do yeoman's work at keeping down insect populations, and if we lose these species nature and humans will be much the poorer.