In his classic A Sand County Almanac, conservationist Aldo Leopold described the male American woodcock's spring 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 nasally "Peent!"
A woodcock had returned to the old field 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.
A displaying male woodcock wants to be seen ... by females. The performance begins with the 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. At that point he descends almost like a falling leaf, and the wing whistle is accompanied by a liquid, vocal twitter.
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, he peents and the performance continues, sometimes for hours.
Woodcock, or timberdoodles as they are sometimes called, are plump, cryptically colored migratory birds that weigh 6 to 7 ounces.
Though classified taxonomically as shorebirds, woodcock live in damp, lowland woods where they eat earthworms almost exclusively. They sometimes return in late February, but I can always count on them in March. During daylight hours, the best evidence of these odd birds are the "probe holes" left behind while searching for earthworms, and whitewash splash.
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."
Biologist, author and broadcaster Scott Shalaway can be heard 9-11 a.m. Saturdays on 1370 AM WVLY (Wheeling), and noon-2 p.m. Sundays on 1360 AM WMNY (Pittsburgh). He can be reached at http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com, and 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.