Witnessing the woodcock's bizarre mating ritual

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One of the great things about the predictability of nature is that anyone can experience the same events that inspired the greats of the conservation movement.

The trick is knowing where and when these events occur.

In Western Pennsylvania, the American woodcock typically performs a late-winter, early-spring courtship rituals that Aldo Leopold, the father of wildlife management, called the "sky dance."

"I owned my [Wisconsin] farm for two years," Leopold writes in his classic "A Sand County Almanac" (Ballantine), "before learning that the sky dance is to be seen over my woods every evening in April and May. Since we discovered it, my family and I have been reluctant to miss even a single performance."

Woodcock walks

Over the next three months, the Three Rivers Birding Club (www.3rbc.com) offers several outings for anyone wanting to see the woodcock dance. Organizer Tom Byrnes has scheduled evening field trips at 6:30 p.m. March 18, 7:15 p.m. April 15, and 7:45 p.m. May 13.

Participants meet about an hour before dark at The Meadows offtrack betting parking lot behind Primanti Brothers restaurant off the Harmarville exit of Route 28 to car pool to the viewing area. Call 412-828-4539 for details.

Other opportunities to experience the woodcock dance are available at Bald Eagle State Park in Centre County. Pre-registration is required by March 13 for a woodcock walk beginning at 7 p.m. March 26. There will also be a woodcock walk during the Bald Eagle Birding Festival 2-8 p.m. April 18. Call 814-625-2775.

College ornithology and wildlife ecology classes located across the range of the woodcock usually schedule field trips to witness the behavior because this is a show that every student of natural history should see. When I lived in Oklahoma, Jack Barclay, a wildlife professor at Oklahoma State, offered such a trip for his students and the local Audubon Society.

The group gathered shortly before sunset on the edge of an open field near the edge of the woods. We settled in and waited for dusk.

A displaying male woodcock is anything but shy. He wants to be seen -- by hens. As darkness falls, he moves from the protective cover of the woods to open fields and advertises his presence.

"PEENT!" he cries. The sound is reminiscent of a nighthawk patrolling the summer sky. Thirty seconds later, he "peents" again. This goes on for minutes, unseen because it's dark, and the bird is obscured by ground cover.

After a few minutes, maybe 10, the bird jumps into the sky. He ascends in an ever-widening spiral flight to a height of 250 to 300 feet. At that point he hovers momentarily, then descends in zig-zag fashion, almost like a falling leaf. Air rushing through the three stiff outer wing feathers makes whistling sounds that accompany a liquid, vocal twitter.

When the sky is clear and the moon is bright, the sounds lead observers' eyes to a dim silhouette.

Upon landing, the male fans his tail and wings and struts about boldly, hoping that at least one hen will find his display irresistible. If one or several females succumb to the charm of the dance, the birds mate.

Woodcock "sky dances" can last for hours between dusk and dawn from early-March through early May. Males are promiscuous, mating with any willing hen that ventures inside his territory.

After watching several flights, Barclay whispered to the group, "Let's try to catch one to band.".

He used nearly invisible nylon mist nets that had to be set up quickly.

The next time the bird took off, Barclay and an assistant dashed out to the spot where the woodcock had been and set up the net. Because displaying woodcock are so predictable, netting them can be surprisingly easy.

Sometimes, though, a male's predictability while displaying can be deadly.

"Displaying males are so focused that predators take a heavy toll this time of year," said Barclay in a recent interview. He's now on the faculty at the University of Connecticut and still studying woodcock. "House cats, weasels, foxes and owls find courting males easy prey."

To describe a woodcock as odd is an understatement. Also called timberdoodle, woody and bog snipe, they're classified shorebirds but live in the woods and are most active at night. They are plump, quail-sized migratory birds that weigh 6 or 7 ounces. Their most conspicuous traits are huge, dark eyes and long bill.

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 bills to probe moist, soft soil for earthworms and other invertebrates. These "probe holes" offer the best evidence of the presence of woodcock. 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 will not flush until almost stepped on. This helps most survive the annual fall hunting season.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission, the agency responsible for all wildlife management in the state, recently unveiled a Woodcock Management Plan that calls for the creation of about 80,000 acres of prime woodcock habitat each year through 2018. Commission biologist Bill Palmer said the state's population is down approximately 40,000 males since the 1970s, or around 40 percent.

Woodcock Limited of Pennsylvania, an Eastern Pennsylvania hunting group, is aggressively encouraging landowners to get more woodcock habitat enrolled in the Woodcock Management Plan.

After discovering the woodcock's springtime mating behavior, Aldo Leopold's appreciation of the bird matured beyond table fare.

"The woodcock is a living refutation of the theory that the utility of a game bird is to serve as a target, or to pose gracefully on a slice of toast," he wrote. "No one would rather hunt woodcock in October than I, 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."

John Hayes contributed to this story. Scott Shalaway is a biologist and author and can be reached at scottshalaway.googlepages.com and RD 5, Cameron, WV 26033.


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