People mark the arrival of spring in different ways. For some, the appearance of red-winged blackbirds is a sure sign that spring is just around the corner. For others, spring is not officially here until a deafening chorus of spring peepers roars from every pond, marsh and creek. But for a select few, it’s the “sky dance” of an odd-looking bird with a big heart, the American woodcock. And every year, there are fewer and fewer of them.
The American woodcock is a species of sandpiper that, over the course of time, has relocated from the beach to the woods. River bottoms, damp alder runs, and young stands of aspens, birches, and willows are where you’ll find them. A favorite with Yankee sportsmen and birders alike, woodcock have many colorful local names, including
timberdoodle, bogsucker, and mudbat.
Woodcocks resemble their shorebird kin, but are larger and chunkier. They have a long bill like a sandpiper, but have an upper mandible with a prehensile tip, which enables them to grasp earthworms and other invertebrates while probing soil. Big eyes sit well on top of the bird’s head, giving it a 360-degree field of vision. This adaptation literally allows a woodcock to see behind itself, making it very difficult for a predator to surprise it while it’s feeding or on a nest (woodcocks nest on the ground). Mottled brown in color, these birds blend in exceptionally well with the forest floor, and when it senses danger, a woodcock’s first instinct is to remain motionless. I have often walked within three feet of one and have not known it was there until it flushed.
In late March and early April, woodcocks return to New England from their wintering grounds in the south to breed. Conservationist Aldo Leopold, in his landmark book A Sand County Almanac, waxed poetic about the springtime aerial courtship display of the male, calling it the “sky dance.” Male woodcocks arrive just before the females to stake out “singing grounds,” where the dances are held. Singing grounds are typically abandoned farm fields or pastures with brushy cover.
The show begins at dusk. The male begins to strut about and utter a series of vocalizations known as
“peents.” After doing this for a while, he takes flight in wide, ascending spirals, which become smaller and smaller as he gets higher. The loud twittering sound made by his wings ceases when he is about 200-500 feet up, where he hovers while chirping a fluid, melodious warble, the kind usually reserved only for songbirds. He then silently zig-zags back down the ground to the same place he started, and begins again. Females wait in the wings and select the best dancer. The whole show from the first to last peent usually lasts anywhere from 30 to 50 minutes and is over once the sky becomes dark, but woodcocks have been known to display through the night if the moon is full. Courtship is generally over by late May.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service, whose task it is to monitor all migratory
gamebirds, keeps track of woodcock populations by conducting singing ground surveys each spring. Unfortunately, the news is not good. Since the inception of the surveys in 1968, woodcock populations in the East have been declining at an average rate of 2.6 percent each year. Recent data indicates that, for the eastern region alone, the number of displaying woodcocks has decreased by 11 percent. Who, or what, is to blame?
Wildlife biologists suspect that the culprit is the loss of both wintering and breeding habitat due to increased development of rural and suburban areas. Louisiana, an important wintering ground, is losing the wetland habitat woodcocks use at an alarming rate. Studies are ongoing to determine the impact of hunter harvest on woodcocks, but initial findings indicate that hunting does not significantly impact their overall populations.
So what can be done? Even though hunting may not affect woodcock numbers, the USFWS has truncated woodcock seasons in all regions by at least a week, and has reduced the bag limit to three birds per day. Many state agencies are also increasing woodcock habitat by re-cutting select areas of mature forest. These are areas that were once managed for timber or were farmland, but have become overgrown. After cutting, these newly formed areas of second-growth are more attractive to woodcocks, and many other species of wildlife as well.
In Massachusetts and Rhode Island, there is precious little land these states can actively manage for woodcocks, and too many abandoned farms or cleared woods end up as shopping malls or “luxury estates.” Individuals can help the American woodcock by joining MA Audubon or the Audubon Society of R.I., which set aside land for wildlife. You can also join the Ruffed Grouse Society (based out of PA), which spends a good portion of its revenue on projects that assist private landowners, state agencies, and other organizations in their efforts to manage for these birds.
Most importantly, more research needs to be done. Hopefully it’s not too late for the sky dancer.