Cold, gray days make me think cold, gray thoughts. Years from now anyone will be able to tell just from reading this record of my internal weather what the earth and sky were doing outside my window at the time.
But the conditions are just right for the woodcock’s annual sky dance, as Aldo Leopold once termed it. Sunday evening after supper, around 6:30 p.m., I heard the distinctive peent peent call of a male woodcock in full courtship mode. He was about a week later than last year, but then, everything’s late this year. I called my parents, and they joined me out behind the barn to watch the show.
The American woodcock – also known as timberdoodle, bog sucker, night partridge, Labrador twister, or (in Quebec) la Becasse – is an exceedingly strange bird: basically a displaced shorebird that lives on earthworms and nests in old fields and young, brushy woods. Picture a fat bird about six inches long from top of head to tip of stubby tail, with a wingspan of maybe fifteen inches. Its eyes are set way back on its head, opposite its most distinctive feature – the four-inch-long bill. (I happen to have a taxidermist’s mount of a woodcock on my wall, whence the above picture.)
Phylogenetically speaking, Scolopax minor is a sandpiper; Arthur Cleveland Bent included it in his classic Life Histories of North American Shorebirds (Dover Publications, 1962 ). Though Bent’s meticulous collation of accounts from the scientific literature have been superceded by the (still incomplete) Birds of North America series published by the American Ornithologists’ Union in cooperation with the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, his life histories remain far more readable. About the woodcock, he writes,
This mysterious hermit of the alders, this recluse of the boggy thickets, this wood nymph of crepuscular habits is a common bird and well distributed in our Eastern States, widely known, but not intimately known. Its quiet retiring habits do not lead to human intimacy. It may live in our midst unnoticed. Its needs are modest, its habitat is circumscribed, and it clings with tenacity to its favorite haunts even when encroached upon by civilization.
A bit of moisture was in the air Sunday evening, and between the low barometric pressure and the very low cloud ceiling – only a few hundred feet over our heads – sounds traveled far. It occurred to me that such acoustic conditions might be especially favorable for the woodcock’s spring display, though the published literature focuses mainly on the light-gathering potential of the open areas favored for singing grounds. One study in New Brunswick did find that sites with less white noise are favored, but here in Plummer’s Hollow, woodcock displays have increased over the years, even as noise from the nearby highway has also increased. Highway noise was especially loud on Sunday, but that didn’t stop our woodcock from peenting for all he was worth.
Perhaps in part because of his long bill, the woodcock is a skilled ventriloquist. If you hadn’t read the literature, you’d swear that he was flying rapidly back and forth as he delivered his peent call, which sounds almost like a very brief sample of a cicada’s song repeated over and over, or a high-pitched nighthawk. You can peer around at the darkening clouds all you want without seeing him, though, because at this stage in the performance he’s still on the ground, standing or strutting about. In the dry prose of the Birds of North America monograph by D.M. Keppie and R.M. Whiting, Jr., “Male rotates on ground causing directional change in intensity of Peent.”
Bent reproduces a much more colorful account from 1894, courtesy of William Brewster (who heard paap instead of peent). It’s not clear to me how anyone manages to observe this behavior without infrared goggles, but Brewster assures us that
At each utterance of the paap the neck was slightly lengthened, the head was thrown upward and backward…, the bill was opened wide and raised in a horizontal position, the wings were jerked out from the body. All these movements were abrupt and convulsive, indicating considerable muscular effort on the part of the bird… The opening and shutting of the bill strongly suggested that of a pair of tongs. During the emission of the paap the throat swelled and its plumage was ruffled… The mouth opened to such an extent that I could look directly down the bird’s throat, which appeared large enough to admit the end of one’s forefinger. The lateral distension of the mouth was quite striking.
It used to be thought that a silent female could usually be found somewhere in the vicinity whenever a male performed like this, but more recent studies have cast doubt on that theory. Some males display every night for weeks as they migrate north, seemingly for the sheer hell of it. Perhaps they’re simply psyching themselves up for the real thing? In any case, the precise purpose of the male woodcock’s springtime display remains unknown. The close association of nests and singing grounds suggests some role in courtship, but the bird’s social behavior offers few clues to what that might be. According to Keppie and Whiting, woodcocks have “no known dominance hierarchy nor minimum individual distances.” They are
Polygynous [and form] no pair bond; males give no parental care. Males in north continue display long after most females commence laying eggs; some males display at widely separate singing grounds. [There’s] no evidence of mate guarding or that male territory provides females with physical resources; [it remains] speculative that copulations occur mainly on singing ground. Some females visit at least 4 singing grounds before nesting and continue visits while incubating and with broods.
Whatever its function, the aerial part of the woodcock’s display is the most spectacular for human observers. After a minute or two the peenting abruptly stops and the timberdoodle launches himself into the air. Once aloft, he beats his wings in such a manner as to emit a high-pitched whistling or twittering sound, “produced by air passing between three attentuated outer primaries” (Keppie and Whiting). (In the photo above, these three are clumped together so that they appear as a single, thin feather at the very end of the wing.) Thus whistling like a dove on steroids, our hero ascends steeply in wide spirals. It’s usually possible to see his small and faintly ridiculous form silhouetted against the darkening sky as he careens around, though a couple times this past Sunday we watched him disappear into the clouds at the apex of his aerial dance.
That’s when he begins to sing for real, repeating a rapid-fire series of four to six melodious twittering notes, which, like the earlier peents, seem to come from all directions as he zigzags, banks and dives. The interweaving of these notes with the fluting of his wings produces an eerie effect. In less than half a minute he drops back down to the ground, so quickly he’s almost impossible to spot. It must be a tricky thing to put on a show like this without becoming owl bait; I would imagine that the flying maneuvers and the ventriloquism represent adaptations to avoid predators, but who knows? Keppie and Whiting do say that having eyes on the back of his head “may help male detect predators while recurringly Peenting at same localized site.”
We listened and watched while the woodcock went through four iterations of his song and dance routine. Each time the period devoted to peenting grew briefer; it was hard not to come away with the impression of mounting excitement as the bird got more and more into his act. The first couple of times we were able to pick out his silhouette, but during his third spiral dance my dad couldn’t see him, and by the fourth time, none of us could make him out. But he kept it up until the last little bit of daylight had drained from the sky. It wasn’t until I went back to the house that I remembered, for the first time that day, that it was the equinox.
The next morning I heard him again from my front porch, starting around 5:20. I walked up behind the house with my coffee and listened for a while, but I never did manage to spot him. He stopped after twenty minutes, just as the first song sparrows began calling. Last night at dusk we went out again, but he had shifted operations to the far side of the field – near the presumed nesting habitat at the edge of the woods – and we never did catch a glimpse. My mother persisted after Dad and I returned to our respective houses, and she told me this morning that she had been able to sneak right into the center of his singing ground. Although she never got a good look, during the silent pause at the end of one flight she caught a movement out of the corner of her eye, a darting shadow only a few feet away. She figured that must’ve been him coming in for a landing, because he didn’t resume peenting until she retreated a few dozen yards.
I say “presumed nesting habitat” because woodcocks are truly secretive birds. They nest in shallow depressions directly on the ground, often near the base of a tree, and their dead-leaf coloration makes them almost impossible to spot. One year we did find a telltale series of holes the diameter of a pencil in the mud right inside the woods near the old farm dump, and took that as pretty good evidence of a resident woodcock in the vicinity. Old fields like ours are not as common in Pennsylvania as they used to be; most have either gone back to woods or have been converted into malls and subdivisions. Not surprisingly, woodcocks are becoming increasingly scarce here, though I gather that the species as a whole is not in trouble. It can be found as far west as the 100th meridian, as far north as southern Canada, and as far south as the Gulf Coast, where it over-winters.
One way or another, it’s hard to imagine that too many people, other than hard-core birders, are outside at six-thirty on cold evenings in early spring to witness the courtship rites of woodcocks. Aldo Leopold, in a Sand County Almanac ( Oxford University Press, 1949), lamented the widespread ignorance of this spectacle on the part of his neighbors in Wisconsin:
The drama of the sky dance is enacted nightly on hundreds of farms, the owners of which sigh for entertainment, but harbor the illusion that it is to be sought in theaters. They live on the land, but not by the land.
Of course, home entertainment options have multiplied a hundred-fold since Leopold’s day. Even kids can rarely be found outdoors anymore, except for closely supervised activities such as Little League or soccer practice. Few people know and fewer care about (for example) skunk cabbages, whose sturdy spathes can actually generate enough heat to melt snow, and probably not too many folks bother to track down that frantic quacking sound off in the woods that we’ll be hearing in another week or two. Again, though, they don’t know what they’re missing: few sights can compare with a shallow pond in the forest that’s seething with horny wood frogs.
But it is through just such unheralded events as these that spring advances. Robins can stick around right on through the winter at this latitude, singing whenever they feel like it, and warm days in February can fool non-native snowdrops and crocuses into blooming. How could anyone attribute the power of augury to such conventionally pretty things? Spring in the Appalachians is a blend of the radiant and the supremely strange. Nothing quite spells its arrival for me like the mad sky dance of the timberdoodle.