By Scott Shalaway
For The Register-Herald
In his classic “A Sand County Almanac” (1949), wildlife biologist Aldo Leopold described the male American woodcock’s courtship display as a “sky dance.” I call it my favorite harbinger of spring.
A few nights ago as I watched the February full moon rise in the east, a familiar sound caught my ear. “Peent!” A few seconds later, another nasal “Peent!” The sound reminds me of the call of common nighthawks as they sweep the sky for insects on warm summer nights.
A woodcock had returned to the old pasture behind the house. Males emerge from the woods at dusk and search for patches of poor soil with sparse vegetation. Dense ground cover hinders the movement of these short-legged birds. That’s why I make it a point to mow a few patches of grass extra short in late October. It’s my invitation to dance.
A displaying male woodcock wants to be seen — by females. (Watch for field trips offered by local nature centers or bird clubs if you have no idea where to find woodcock.) To enjoy the show, creep into position just before dark and wait.
The performance begins with the aforementioned, exclamatory peents. Soon the calls stop, and the bird jumps into the sky. He ascends in an ever-widening spiral flight to a height of 250 to 300 feet. Listen for a whistling sound as the bird climbs and air rushes through its three stiff outer wing feathers. Then he descends almost like a falling leaf, and the wing whistle is accompanied by a liquid, vocal twitter. At twilight or on moonlit nights silhouettes are sometimes visible.
Upon landing near the exact spot from which he launched, the male fans his tail and wings and struts about boldly, like a miniature tom turkey. If a female is present and charmed by the dance, mating occurs. Absent hens, the performance continues, sometimes for hours.
Woodcock, or timberdoodles as they are sometimes called, are plump, cryptically colored, migratory birds that weigh six or seven ounces. Though classified taxonomically as shorebirds, woodcock live in damp, lowland woods where they eat earthworms almost exclusively.
Woodcock sometimes return in late February, but I can always count on them in March. During daylight hours, “probe holes” left behind while searching for earthworms and whitewash splash are the best evidence of these odd birds.
In hand, a woodcock’s huge, dark eyes and long bill dominate its head. Woodcock have excellent night vision. Their eyes are positioned high and far back on their skulls, so woodcock 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.
Hard freezes send woodcock to seeps where earthworms are usually available even when surrounding ground freezes. Since woodcock spend so much time with their bills in the ground, their near 360-degree field of vision helps them detect aerial predators.
Woodcock also enjoy the protection of cryptic coloration or camouflage. Dappled in shades of brown, woodcock are almost impossible to see as they rest among leaves on the forest floor. They don’t flush until almost stepped upon.
But in spring, woodcock are best known for their song and dance routine. The show typically begins at dusk in an opening near moist woods. It could be an overgrazed pasture, a gravel pit, or even an interstate highway median strip.
Clear, moonlit nights provide the best chance for observing woodcock displays. But remember, much of the performance is vocal. The dance of the woodcock is a rite of spring that every nature watcher should see at least once. You’ll need no special equipment for an adventure you’ll never forget. One warning though — after seeing the woodcock dance, you may want to see it again and again.
Aldo Leopold tried to catch the sky dance as often as possible on his Wisconsin farm.
“No one would rather hunt woodcock in October than I,” he wrote, “but since learning of the sky dance I find myself calling one or two birds enough. I must be sure that, come April, there be no dearth of dancers in the sunset sky.”
— Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org