The Dance of the Woodcock

American woodcock by David LarsonIt’s an annual rite of passage. As the snow melts away and the first traces of greenery return to the woods of New England, our breeding birds begin the courtship process. And no bird is more of an exhibitionist then the American woodcock.

Early March, these elusive birds gather at the forest’s edge to perform their famous “sky-dance.”

It goes something like this: First, male woodcocks utter a distinctive one-note peent call with a buzzy, nasal quality. They then flutter high into the air and circle repeatedly, allowing the rushing air to rise in a winnowing whistle as it passes over their wings. To finish off, they acrobatically descend back to the very same spot they took off from and repeat the process in the hopes of attracting a female.

About American Woodcocks

Also known as Timberdoodles (timber, for their woodland habitat, doodle because they look somewhat silly), these plump, mottled forest birds might resemble grouse or quail at first glance. However, it’s their long bills that betray their true genetic identity as members of the sandpiper family, Scolopacidae. These exceptional bills allow woodcocks to probe through soft mud in search of worms and other invertebrates to eat.

It’s often difficult to spot woodcocks outside of their courtship display. Their plumage allows them to be very well camouflaged when hiding in the leaf litter, where they build their nests and incubate their eggs.

The American woodcock can be found throughout Massachusetts, from the Berkshires to Nantucket. Yet, according the State of the Birds report, there may be trouble ahead for this beloved bird as more old field habitats they depend for their singing grounds are disappearing.

Seeing Them in Action

The courtship flights of the American woodcock are impressive, and, fortunately, easy to observe. Just as the biting cold of winter begins to abate in late February and early March, the first woodcocks return to the Commonwealth.

Although woodcocks nest in forested areas, they prefer to perform their courtship displays in more open habitat. For this reason, old pastures and the margins of wooded wetlands are some of the best places to look for singing woodcocks. Courtship activity is most intense around sunset, so plan your woodcock excursions to arrive at the singing grounds before twilight.

Need a little guidance? Join an upcoming woodcock program. And check out this great Living on Earth segment, where a Mass Audubon naturalist brings the mating ritual to the airwaves.

4 thoughts on “The Dance of the Woodcock

  1. Susie Howard

    Have found my 3rd dead woodcock in downtown Boston! Hit the buildings at night? What gorgeous birds…so sad.

    3/27/17

    Reply
  2. Karen Martakos

    I am wondering if the heavy snow cover over most of Massachusetts, which may not melf off until late March or early April, will affect the woodcock’s mating season this year. Do the experts at Mass Audubon have any thoughts on this?

    Reply
    1. Hillary

      From Mass Audubon’s wildlife expert: Although American Woodcocks often start their courtship flights very early they don’t typically settle down to breeding until April. With any luck the snow will have gone by then. but if it remains cold it could definitely slow things down.

      Reply
      1. Karen Martakos

        Thanks for your reply, Hillary. I haven’t ventured out to look for any woodcocks in my area, due to all of the snow and mud on the ground. Good to know that there might still be some good displays to see once everything melts.

        Reply

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