The woodcock’s sky dance

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American Woodcock
American Woodcock by Fyn Kynd (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)], via Flickr.

One of the best of nature’s predictable shows begins in March — the dance of the woodcock. The exact time and place are difficult to know, but it’s a great harbinger of spring.

Unless heavy rain or snow interferes, woodcock rarely miss a performance. I first observed the woodcock dance in 1981. When a colleague at Oklahoma State University offered to lead an evening field trip for the local Audubon Society, I signed up.

We arrived at a large old field just before sunset and hunkered down. Jack Barclay had been capturing and banding American woodcock for years, so I had high expectations.

Watching woodcock display is more an exercise in sound than in sight. Just as the sky grew dark, we heard the first nasal “PEENT!” A few minutes later another broke the silence. Twenty minutes in we had at least three males displaying, but of course, it was too dark to see them. So we listened.

The sky dance

In the distance, a barred owl called, “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you-alll?” Spring peepers called from a nearby pond. Then another woodcock.

Displaying male woodcocks want to be seen — by females. The performance begins with that loud exclamatory “PEENT!” It’s reminiscent of the summertime call of common nighthawks.

A few minutes later, another nasal “peent” sounds. Soon the peculiar calls come faster and faster; after a few minutes, the time between calls can be measured in seconds.

Suddenly the calls stop, and the bird jumps into the air. The sky dance has begun. He ascends in an ever-widening spiral flight to a height of 250 to 300 feet. At that point, he hovers momentarily, then descends in zig-zag fashion, almost like a falling leaf. Air rushing through the three stiff outer wing feathers makes whistling sounds and is accompanied by a liquid, vocal twitter.

In his classic A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold called this show the “sky dance,” and at twilight or on moonlit nights silhouettes can be seen.

Upon landing, the male fans his tail and wings and struts about boldly, like a miniature ruffed grouse or tom turkey. He hopes at least one hen will find his display irresistible. If one or several females succumb to the charms of the dance, the birds mate. If there are no takers, the dance continues.

Woodcock displays can last for hours between dusk and dawn from early-March through early May. Males are promiscuous; they mate with any hen that ventures inside the arena.

Woodcocks’ appearance

Woodcock are plump, bobwhite-sized birds that weigh six or seven ounces. Taxonomically classified as migratory shorebirds, they live in the woods. At dusk during the breeding season, males move to open areas where they can be more easily seen and heard by nearby females.

Woodcock have huge eyes positioned high and far back on their skulls, so they actually can see above and behind their heads. They use their long, flesh-colored bill to probe moist, soft soil for earthworms and other invertebrates. Since woodcock spend so much time with their bills in the ground, their near 360-degree field of vision helps them detect aerial predators overhead.

Woodcock also enjoy the protection of cryptic coloration or camouflage. Dappled in shades of brown, woodcock are almost impossible to see, even in broad daylight, as they rest among leaves on the forest floor. They will not flush until almost stepped upon. They are among North Americas most perfectly camouflaged birds.

A hen incubating a clutch of four eggs is particularly difficult to spot among the leaf litter. When the eggs hatch after 21 days of incubation, the precocial chicks are equally difficult to locate. When alarmed by an intruder, the chicks nestle beneath the wings of the protective hen.

Clear, moonlit nights provide the best chance for catching a glimpse of silhouetted woodcock displays. But remember, much of the performance is vocal. The dance of the woodcock is a rite of spring that every birder should experience at least once. Nature centers and bird clubs often sponsor field trips to woodcock dancing grounds. Tag along for an adventure you’ll remember for years.

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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at www.khbradio.com, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at www.drshalaway.com or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.

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