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Woodcock's looks, gait laughable, but courtship display showy

The American woodcock courts females with dazzling aerial displays

March 20, 2016

NATURE
Jim McCormac

"I'd rather be a little weird than all boring."
— Rebecca McKinsey (perhaps speaking for the woodcock)

There is nothing normal about an American woodcock. Even its nicknames bear this out: bogsucker, Labrador twister, timberdoodle.

The woodcock is a sandpiper, but it shares little in common with its kin. Even its habitat is different: damp thickets, shrubby meadows and young woods. For most of the year, woodcocks are out of sight and out of mind, concealed in the undergrowth.

Weird is an understatement when it comes to woodcock looks. It’s as if a drunken scientist assembled the creature during a fit of creative madness. An enormous Pinocchio-like bill juts from the bird’s face (useful for drilling worms in soft soil).

Woodcock eyes are huge, inky pools of blackness located closer to the back of the head than the front. Short, stubby legs support a rotund body topped by a large, domelike head.

The overall package’s comical impression is only bolstered by observing the woodcock's walk. It locomotes with an odd, mincing gait, each stride punctuated with rapid upward bounces.

We are entering prime time to see the woodcock’s spectacular courtship display. Beginning in early spring, these camouflaged shrinking violets burst from their shells in a major way.

Males establish a “dancing ground," which is really more of a helipad, usually near brushy cover. Come dusk, the male struts from the thicket and occupies his stage. He begins to issue loud nasal buzzes: peent! peent!

To ensure that any female observers hear him, the woodcock slowly spins as he calls, projecting to all corners.

After he has garnered prospective mates’ attention with his buzzing, his display takes a turn toward spectacular. Launching himself, the woodcock hurtles toward the heavens in great looping spirals. As he ascends, he delivers a constant series of rapid chirps caused by wind rushing through the outer primary feathers.

After reaching the apex of the flight, which might be several hundred feet in the air, the bird suddenly reverses course and swoops earthward.

During the descent, he twitters. When the aerial arias and sky-dancing are complete, the woodcock plops down on his dancing ground, and the cycle begins anew.

This display must be quite impressive to the Ms. Woodcocks. Insofar as the males are concerned, the more girls, the merrier. Male woodcock are polygynous; they will mate with more than one female.

The end game of this crazy courtship is the production of little woodcocks: puffballs on stilts.

Woodcock are found in much of eastern North America and are common in many areas of Ohio, including local Metro Parks. Woodcock walks take place at 7:30 tonight at Battelle Darby Metro Park and at 7 p.m. Saturday at Blacklick Metro Park. For details, visit www.metroparks.net.

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.

Comments

Sue said…
Good informative post--I had never seen these before moving to northern Michigan. Though I rarely see them, it's always a thrill when I do.

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