Thursday, March 19, 2009


Woodcock are back! Now that is twittering that I can believe in. Rather than the tweets, twitters, and twitterings, which I am supposed to try. Apologies to my friend who suggested that I twitter. So far it is not my thing. Although, I heard that even Dan Schorr of NPR is trying it. And jurors are twittering during trials. ummmm.... Rather than get in a twit about it all, I am heading outside (it is the crepuscular time of day of course), sans cellphone, to listen to the original source of twittering -- displaying male woodcock, harbinger of spring.

Photo above of woodcock is from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Woodcock are the oddest of birds. They are a shorebird, related to sandpipers, curlews, snipes, dowitchers, phalaropes, yet they live in the upland, in woods and field edges. Their nickname "timberdoodle" explains their habitat preferences and their unique and extraordinary mating display.

Starting in mid-March (right on time), woodcock return to their breeding grounds, searching out open fields, bordered by moist thickets (such as alder), and young forest. They need all of these habitats for "singing," roosting, feeding, and nesting. For nearly an hour at dawn and again at dusk, the males perform their mating dance. An elaborate performance that begins with a series of nasal peents as the male struts around in a circle on the ground. Then in a flash he takes off, twittering (a sound made by airflow vibrating the stiff outer three primary feathers) as he flies nearly straight up, as high as 300 feet. Then he starts chirping and begins a spiraling, zig-zagging dive back down to the ground. He begins again, repeating this dozens of times. Peenting 5, 10, 20, 30 times before taking flight again. One assumes that several females are hanging around to see which male in the neighorhood has the best peents, twitters, chirps, and dives.

Photo of woodcock wing is from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

Along with the special wing feathers and "sky dance," woodcock are just a funny looking bird. Their plump, mango-shaped, nearly neckless body is adorned with short legs set back on the body, so they walk like they have a big pot belly. Their large, dark eyes are set high on their head--better to see predators all around while they are probing in moist soil. Not to be outdone the bill comes with many features -- it is long (2-3 inches) for probing in soft sand and mud for earthworms and other invertebrates, and it is flexible (prehensile) with nerve endings at the tip for locating and grasping prey. Finally, the body is well camouflaged with buff, brown, and cinnamon colored-feathers and a black, barred head, looking a lot like fallen leaves and branches.

If you want to catch the morning show, get up early and venture out about 6 am (a cup of coffee helps), when it is still dark, and settle down next to a clearing. Sitting quietly you will surely start to hear "peent...peent..." or you might hear the twittering (leave the other twittering for later) of its wings. If you are not a morning person, you can catch the evening show. Check your neighborhood fields starting around sunset. Peak singing times are between 22 and 58 minutes after sunset (yes, lots of people have studied woodcock and know these things).

On a daytime, woodland walk that takes you near moist thickets of alder, willow, dogwoods, or other hardwoods, you might flush a bird hiding in the leaves beside the trail. It could just be the timbertoodle, taking flight. After you pass, it will settle back down, resting until the next sky dance performance. Book your show now.


  1. I love the sky dance. It's one of the privileges living where I do, to be able to see and hear it right outside my door. Moist alder 'em!

  2. Ha! You beat me to it. A few nights ago, after enduring too many too enthusiastic invitations to learn to twitter at my workplace, I thought of posting an entry on my own blog about 'real twittering.'

    But I never got around to it and I'm happy to read yours instead. Mine would have been of a more critical slant I'm afraid, bemoaning the trend toward viewing everything through a digital prism, rather than enjoying the real world around us. But I decided that critical blogs are really not for me. Better to stay positive and try to show the beautiful and interesting things in the world, especially the natural world. You've done a great job.

    Speaking of crepuscular I rarely hear the word but when I do I can't help but think of the 50 year old piece by Thelonious Monk, 'Crepuscule With Nellie.' Best to listen to it on a CD or DVD, but, at the risk of encouraging more digital gadgetry, there is also a video on youtube.