Let's Talk About Birds: American Woodcock

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This is one of a series presented by the National Aviary, which works to inspire respect for nature through an appreciation of birds.

One of the most interesting and unusual birds in the Pittsburgh area can be found "singing" and "dancing" at this time of the year just at dusk, wherever there is a damp open old field surrounded by a thicket or woods. The noisy aerobatic spectacle that is this chunky sandpiper's courtship display is so entertaining to watch that bird and nature lovers will flock to their favorite spots in March and early April for the annual rite of spring known as a "woodcock walk." If you've never seen or heard (or even heard of) an American woodcock, this is the time of year to make its acquaintance.

Stand at the edge of a brushy wet field after sunset. If it is a "singing ground" for the ardent timberdoodle, as the woodcock is sometimes called, then about the time the goodnight calls of the last cardinals and robins settling in their roosts have begun to trail off, listen carefully. You may soon hear the nasal "peeent!" call of a male woodcock just emerging from the thickets to take his place at the edge of the field that will be the stage for his performance. One calling male will soon be answered by another and another -- male woodcocks display in groups, called leks, to any females that may be in the area -- and when the fading light is just right, it will launch itself up into the air on twittering wings. (The twittering noise is made by air moving through specially shaped outer wing feathers.) Look for the ascending bird right away, silhouetted against the dusky sky, because if you can catch sight of its chunky long-billed form as it makes its low-angle takeoff, you may be able to follow it with binoculars as it circles higher and faster up into the evening sky. The sound of its twittering wings will get softer but also quicker, as it spirals up to a height beyond what you can see with your naked eye. (In fact, it will not be much more than a speck, even viewed through binoculars.) At the apex of its flight, which can be 500 feet, it will pour forth a choppy song that sounds to my ear like, "I-am-a-TIM-ber-doo-dle, I-am-a-TIM-ber-doo-dle, I-am-a-TIM-ber-doo-dle." Then, it will suddenly go silent, set its wings and descend like a downhill skier or a fast-falling leaf, zigging and zagging dangerously toward the ground, but fluttering the last 10 feet to a soft landing near the very spot where it launched itself just a minute before. Wait a few seconds for it to catch its breath, and it will punctuate its performance with another loud, proud "Peent!"

But this is just its opening act. Night after night, this male woodcock will give six or more encore performances before full darkness falls, in the hope that there are female woodcocks in the audience watching and liking what they see.

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