Putting on a show

  • The American Woodcock puts on quite the spectacle each spring, and there’s plenty of time to catch the show. Courtesy of Fyn Kynd via Flickr

  • Jerrie Schultz puts a band on a young woodcock chick in Sterling, Mich., May 16, 2006. For many Michigan upland bird enthusiasts, there are two woodcock seasons. There's the 45 days in the fall, when hunters take their shotguns and dogs in pursuit of the needle-nose migrants. And there's a monthlong period in the spring, when those same hunters take their dogs afield again to hunt the birds. But this time, instead of carrying scatter-guns, hunters bring long-handled nets to catch the birds and tag them. (AP Photo/Booth News, Bob Gwizdz) BOB GWIZDZ—AP

For the Monitor
Published: 4/6/2019 4:00:18 PM

As a naturalist, I’ve been accused of doing some pretty crazy things in search of fascinating nature sightings or memorable outdoor experiences. For every friend who shakes their head or chuckles, there are others who join me on these forays and are glad they did. So find an adventuresome friend and get ready to witness one of the most captivating performances of the season.

The performer is the male American Woodcock. Woodcocks are mottled brown, chunky birds about the size of a robin. Like robins, they feed on earthworms, but the woodcock’s beak is much longer, with a flexible tip that can probe into the dirt to extract their wiggly meal. 

The preferred habitat of woodcocks is moist fields with a shrubby edge for protection. A south-facing slope, which allows for early snow melting, is ideal since these migratory birds often return as early as mid-March and will seek out the open ground for feeding. This is the type of area to locate in order to observe the male’s courtship flight. 

When you have found such a field, plan to return at the end of the day because woodcocks are crepuscular creatures, that is, active at dawn or dusk. The evening show times are easier to catch. Pick an evening that is calm and mild. Find a sheltered spot where you can blend in with a bush. Then be still and listen.

The sound you will likely hear first if you have successfully located an active territory, is a buzzy, nasal “peent.” This vocal sound is made by the male to attract attention, as a way of saying “get ready, I have something special to show you.” His intended audience, of course, is female woodcocks, but for people, it is also the call that tells us we are in the right place at the right time. The “peent” calls are given at intervals of about 10 to 20 seconds and can come in a brief series or carry on for several minutes.  

When the male determines it is time, he stops strutting and “peent”-ing and takes to flight. Sweeping in wide circles he ascends into the sky. At about 50 feet up, a new sound is produced by the three narrow primary feathers on the tips of his wings. The modified primaries create a whistling twitter, which continues until he reaches the top of his spiral, perhaps as much as 200 to 300 feet off the ground. At this point, he begins his flight song, a series of staccato chirps which continue through his zigzag decent and stop just before he lands on the ground, often in the exact same spot from which he took off.

You’d think he would need to catch his breath after such an acrobatic display, but once he’s back on the ground, the woodcock begins the routine all over again with his “peent” call. So, if you missed it, stay tuned and you’ll get another chance. The courtship displays will continue until dark when it becomes difficult to see the bird. During a full moon, woodcocks may display well into the night. If you observe them at dawn, the curtain call will come as daylight takes over the stage.

The male’s goal of course is to attract a female, or many females. Woodcocks are promiscuous, so the display does not end once mating has occurred with one female. This helps to increase the woodcock population, and it also provides us with a wider window for observing this spring ritual. Courtship displays will continue throughout April and often into May. I advise going earlier in the season to avoid biting insects, which arrive later and make sitting still more challenging.

As with all wildlife observations, the key is to be sensitive to the animals’ needs and make yourself as unobtrusive as possible. It is tempting to get close to the birds, but doing so may disturb them and cause them to cease their display or even abandon the territory. If you feel moved to applaud this performance, do so with a silent cheer. For if we are a respectful and caring audience, hopefully the woodcocks will continue to offer their performance for many springs to come.

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