Timberdoodles and What They Do

photo courtesy Patuxent Bird Identification Infocenter

One sign of spring that not many people know about is the American Woodcock's mating display. Male woodcocks (nicknamed "timberdoodles") have a beautiful skydance. They perform it in clearings near the edges of woods on early spring evenings and mornings before dawn in the eastern states and extreme southeastern provinces.

Listen to the Woodcock's Beep
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Recording Courtesy of Lang Elliott

When it's just barely light enough to see shadows of distant trees, male woodcocks come out into the open to make their little beeping sounds on the ground. (Biologists call this "peenting"). Suddenly one takes off, flying in an upward spiral, its wings making a lovely chittering sound as he climbs so high that he's no more than a speck in the sky. At the top, he chirps like a canary as he flies in a circle, and then he tumbles to the ground like a fallen leaf and starts beeping again.

Listen to a Woodcock's Entire Skydance
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Recording Courtesy of Lang Elliott

Aldo Leopold wrote an essay about the skydance in his most famous work, A Sand County Almanac. He explained why the woodcock choosewa a bare spot for this display: "Why the male woodcock should be such a stickler for a bare dance floor puzzled me at first, but I now think it is a matter of legs. The woodcock's legs are short, and his struttings cannot be executed to advantage in dense grass or weeds, nor could his lady see them there. I have more woodcocks than most farmers because I have more mossy sand, too poor to support grass."

Leopold noted that woodcock only perform this display at low light levels, "the dancer demanding a romantic light intensity of exactly 0.05 foot-candles. Do not be late, and sit quietly, lest he fly away in a huff."

Woodcocks have an exquisitely designed beak which allows them to eat enormous quantities of earthworms. The tip of the bill senses earthworms by touch and even smell. The bill is long enough to reach worms more than two inches down in the soil, and when it encounters a worm the bill can remain closed, with just the tip opening to grasp the worm without also getting a mouthful of mud.

Another really interesting thing about woodcocks is that they have the SLOWEST powered flight of any bird! When a woodcock is flying forward at normal cruising speed, it's only going about 5 mph.

Learn more about Aldo Leopold and his book, A Sand County Almanac.