Sky Dance

Photo from USFWS

Spring is just around the corner and it brings on a lot of change in nature. Flowers bloom. Fields and grasses turn green. And for those of us connected to the outdoors it also means breeding season for most wildlife. That’s why the turkey season is in Spring. The gobblers are out there strutting and fanning try to attract hens to breed. So they are more suceptible to our flawed yelps and clucks from our box calls.

A video I saw recently on the internet brought back memories of a natural observation from over twelve years ago.  I got to go out one evening with members of the Ruffed Grouse Society staff near Pittsburgh, PA to observe the mating ritual of the American woodcock. First, a little background about this diminutive game bird.

Biology

The woodcock is biologically classified as a shorebird, but it inhabits wood and aspen thickets in lowlands around streams where it can use its long beak to probe for its favorite food, earthworms. It is a migratory bird, in the Spring and Summer inhabiting northern climes for breeding and nesting and then being pushed south by the cold weather of winter. North Carolina does have a woodcock season and occasionally hunters will flush a “flight bird” while out grouse or quail hunting. The eastern flyway takes them through the piedmont and coastal region of NC. Like many of our game birds, the woodcock is declining in numbers primarily due to loss of habitat through development and poor land management.

While visiting RGS headquarters, one of the staff members said he knew a place about one mile from the headquarters building that was a woodcock mating and breeding area, commonly referred to as “singing grounds” (which you will understand after the description of the ritual). So after pizza and a video about the woodcock, several staff members with their spouses and children headed out right before dusk hoping to catch them in the mating mood. It can be a hit or miss proposition. Our expectations were exceeded.

Mating Ritual

As we stood silently on the gravel trail, we could hear the repeated bleating sound made by the male woodcock to attract the attention of female listeners sitting quietly in the area. We counted at least four different birds. After listening to these for a few minutes the interesting part of the mating ritual started.

The Woodcock Sky Dance

At some point the male decides it is time to show off. So he takes off making a “peeping” sound, flying straight up in a corkscrew pattern, gyrating back and forth, to a height of about 200 – 400 feet before descending in that same corkscrewing gyration pattern while cupping his wings. The cupped wings cause the air to make a “singing” sound as he descends back to the same spot from which he took off. I mean the exact same spot within feet. The little male resumes his bleating and sky dance until he attracts a willing female. On a moonlit night, this ritual and sky dance will continue all night if needed to attract a mate. So for about thirty minutes we stood silently listening to their calling and watching these birds do their love dance. We left a little after eight when it got too dark to watch the little birds corkscrew up into the sky, and they were still going strong.

So what’s my point? There are several. First, the staff member said when he first started this there were at least four of these mating grounds within a mile of the headquarters building. This is the only one remaining. All the others have been consumed by development. As human development destroys wildlife habitat, we have a responsibility to provide habitat where we can though proper land management techniques.

Why This is Important

My son and I on a North Carolina woodcock hunt

Secondly, as we travel outside of our home range, we should always look for opportunities to hunt, fish, or even observe wildlife behavior that we may never see at home. That’s one of the neat things about enjoying the outdoors; it is always a learning experience. Sure, I’ve hunted woodcock here in North Carolina, but they typically don’t mate as far south as North Carolina. A friend and avid woodcock hunter at Stoneybrook Outfitters sees a few near his home in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. Had I not been “where I was, when I was” the unique and intriguing sky dance of the timberdoodle is something I might never have experienced.

And lastly, watching this ritual reminded me that no matter where it occurs in this animal kingdom of ours, winged, furred or human, the male will always go through wild gyrations and make a fool of himself to attract a mate. Sorry. Just couldn’t pass that up.