A lot of bird species have what we humans consider bizarre courtship displays (although I think Homo sapiens could easily beat them in that department). In Virginia, the strangest belongs to the American Woodcock (Scolopax minor).
Belonging to the shorebird (Charadriiformes) taxonomic order, S. minor is the only woodcock native to North America. It ranges from Texas east to Florida and north to southern Canada. It overwinters in the Mid-Atlantic and South, with many migrating north, and west into the Appalachian Mountains and beyond, to breed. Woodcocks arrive in the Blue Ridge to start courting as soon as the ground thaws enough that they can find their favorite food, earthworms. This can be as early as January but more typically is late February.
The males migrate before the females to set up singing grounds. According to the Virginia Fish and Wildlife Information Service, courtship only takes place where there are scattered woody plants one to two feet high.
I’ve spent many a cold winter evening in Big Meadows, a prime woodcock mating area in Shenandoah National Park, waiting to witness this species’ unique courtship behavior. I’ve heard the male’s characteristic buzzing “peent” call and sometimes, when lucky, have made out its strange flight in the waning light. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “Birds of North America” Web site, the males “spiral up high on twittering wings with melodious chirping and then circle back sharply to the ground to resume their unique peenting display.”
Henry Marion Hall, in his 1946 book “Woodcock Ways,” describes the male’s descent a bit more poetically: “Descending, at first gradually but then plunging dizzily, the little musician eventually flickers into the brush . . .”
The male’s zigzag descent reminds me of when, in movies, a helicopter goes out of control just before crashing to the ground, although woodcocks do it more gracefully. Courtship displays also include bobbing, fanning the tail, raising the wings, and fluttering the wings in a short flight with legs dangling.
The peenting of the American Woodcock can be confused with the call of the Common Nighthawk (Chordeiles minor), which hunts at dawn and dusk, when woodcocks court. However, woodcocks mix a tuko (tuukooo), chirp and cackle into their vocalizations. A twittering sound can also be heard as the males ascend in their courtship flight, although there is some disagreement as to whether this is caused by the wings or is a vocalization. While the displays have been carefully studied, they are not well understood.
After mating, the female raises the one to 12 resulting young on her own, with males continuing their courtship displays long after the females have left to nest. Some of the males displaying that late are young males born that year who are trying out their moves.
Mara Meisel, an interpretive ranger who is Shenandoah National Park’s expert on the woodcock population in Big Meadows, says that she hasn’t heard the “little buzzy fellows” yet but, with the recent warm spell, expects to any day. She says, “if conditions are right,” the displays should continue there well into May or even early June.
Woodcocks of various species have permeated human culture and lore throughout the centuries. As Hall notes, the plethora of nicknames for the American Woodcock attests our long relationship with them: “Whistler,” “Little Whistler,” “Bogsucker,” “Marsh Plover,” “Big-Eyes,” “Dropping Snipe,” “Becasse,” “Hokumpake,” “Forest Snipe,” “Night Becasse,” “Owl Snipe,” “Timber Doodle,” and “several dozens more in various sections of the country.”
And our fascination with woodcocks is not just because of their courtship displays. They’ve long been a favorite game bird of hunters, some 133,000 of whom bag about 540,000 American Woodcocks annually, according to Wikipedia.
“The woodcock has fascinated sportsmen since the Middle Ages,” Hall notes. “Its puzzling migrations, alternate abundance and scarcity, and, above all, its nocturnal ways long intrigued our forebears, and baffle us almost as much today.” Artists also prize woodcock pin feathers as a painting tool.
The American Woodcock is a plump little bird (less than half a pound) with a long slender bill. A terrestrial bird, it spends most of its life in young upland forest and brushy woods near rivers and streams but emerges into brushy clearings and meadow bogs, such as those at Big Meadows, to mate. The bird’s brown, gray and black feathers camouflage it well in its terrestrial environment.
Woodcocks feed in damp, muddy areas mostly on invertebrates, particularly earthworms, and on some vegetation, particularly seeds. The tip of their bill’s upper mandible is unusual in that it’s flexible, which apparently enables the bird to feel around for worms as it probes the ground. On summer and winter evenings, woodcocks can flock together on their feeding grounds.
Even without its bizarre courtship displays, the American Woodcock adds much to Virginia’s natural landscape. As Hall notes in commenting on its fight song, “The musical performance of the woodcock . . . suggest[s] the coming mysteries of night, and being a flight song, uplifts the spirit of the listener accordingly.”
More about woodcocks
Want to learn more about woodcocks? The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “All about Birds” Web site has recordings of the vocalizations of the American Woodcock, along with descriptions of its courtship behavior. The lab’s Macaulay Library Web site has videos of woodcocks feeding. Henry Marion Hall’s “Woodcock Ways” details the species’ behavior and history, particularly as a game bird, and has charming illustrations. The third volume of the Stokes “Guide to Bird Behavior” is also a good source of information on the courtship display and other behavior.