Skydance! The Woodcock’s Magical Mating Ritual

American Woodcock

From about the middle of April through the end of May, the American Woodcock (Scolopax minor), or Timberdoodle, performs a magical evening mating ritual on the edge of open fields, prairies and wood edges.

Woodcock

As day turns to dusk, the dancer quietly enters the open area, arriving on the ground from some neighboring thicket. At first glance, you might not even see him. These mottled birds are superbly camouflaged with colors of brown, gray and black, and seem to disappear against the leaf litter. Not to worry; if you can’t immediately see him, you will certainly hear him!

Bécasse d'Amérique

His dance begins with a series of buzzy, nasal “peent-peent-peent” calls, spaced about two seconds apart. As the peenting ends and his assent skyward begins, you can hear a melodic whirring sound as he climbs higher and higher in wide spirals into the sky.

As he begins his descent and tumbles out of the sky, the sound changes to a liquid-like twittering warble until he reaches his spot on the ground within feet of where he took off, and the cycle begins again: “peent-peent-peent.” This dramatic display lasts for about an hour each evening.

The magical part of this dance is that while most birds use their vocal chords or syrinx to attract a mate, the Woodcock seems to use his feathers. There is, for the most part, general agreement that these sounds are not produced vocally but by the three outermost primary feathers, which are very narrow. The thought is that the sound is created by air rushing through the feathers, which produces a whistling sound.

American Woodcock (Scolopax minor) -- Green-wood Cemetery

Woodcock are short-legged shorebirds with long bills, short necks and large heads. Large eyes are located along the sides of the bird’s head, allowing it to see in all directions, including directly behind. The three-inch-long bill permits the Woodcock to probe in soft earth for worms, slugs and other invertebrates. Its nostrils lie high on the skull, allowing the bird to forage for food and breathe at the same time. Perhaps most amazingly, its ears are located beneath the eyes so as to hear any movement of food items in the soil below.

Woodcock are native to the United States, preferring moist forests and wet meadows. They winter in the South, from eastern Texas to Florida, and head north throughout the eastern half of the U.S. to breed and raise their young.

American Woodcock

Belwin Conservancy is very happy to have appropriate habitat on which these dancing birds can perform nightly during the breeding season. If you are hiking at the Stagecoach Prairies Natural Area close to sunset, stop and listen. You might be rewarded by witnessing one of nature’s true magical moments. Prepare to be delighted and amazed!

Members: Join us on the third Tuesday of each month for a Sunset Prairies Hike at Stagecoach Prairies. Park in the lot off 11th Street South. Our first hike is April 11 from 6:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

Not a member? Join now to enjoy all the benefits of membership and to support our work.