For the American woodcock, February is mating season
By Susan Campbell
February is the month for love — and for the American woodcock, this is certainly the case! By midmonth this pudgy, short-legged, long-billed denizen of forest and field is in full courtship mode. Almost everyone, however, will miss its unique singing and dancing since it occurs completely under the cover of darkness.
American woodcocks, also called “timberdoodles,” are cousins of the long-legged shorebirds commonly seen at the beach. Like plovers, turnstones, dowitchers and other sandpipers, these birds have highly adapted bills and cryptic plumage. Woodcocks, having no need to wade, actually sport short legs, which they use to slowly scuffle along as they forage in moist woods and shrubby fields. This behavior is thought to startle worms and other soft-bodied invertebrates in the leaf litter and/or just below the soil surface. Their long, sensitive bills are perfect for probing and/or grabbing food items. And camouflaged plumage hides woodcock from all but the most discerning eye.
And, speaking of eyes, American woodcocks have eyes that are large and strategically arranged on their heads. They are very high up and far back such that they can see both potential predators from above as well as food items in front and below them.
Beginning in late winter, male American woodcocks find open areas adjacent to wet, wooded feeding habitat and begin their romantic display at dusk. Their elaborate come-hither routine begins on the ground and continues in the air. Typically, the male struts around in the open area uttering repeated, loud “peeent” calls. He will then take wing and fly in circles high into the sky, twittering as he goes. Finally, the male will turn and drop sharply back to the ground in zigzag fashion, chirping as he goes. And like a crazed teenager, this is followed by repeated rounds of vocalizations.
Where I live along James Creek in horse country in Southern Pines, displaying begins on calm nights in December. Some of these individuals are most likely northern birds that have made the journey to the Southeast retreating from colder weather. They may just be practicing ahead of some serious hanky-panky in early spring back up North. Regardless, females are known to visit multiple spots where males are known to do their thing before they choose a mate. So it behooves the males to display as often as possible to impress as many females as they can during the weeks that they are on the hunt for a mate.
Although long hunted for sport, it was Aldo Leopold, the renowned conservationist, who implored sportsmen to better appreciate these little birds. They are well adapted for a forest floor existence, hidden from all but their mates come this time of the year. And, on rare occasions, from birdwatchers keen on getting a glimpse of the American woodcock’s antics come late winter. OH
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