For the Birds Radio Program: American Woodcock (Original)
(Recording of an American Woodcock)
For me, an April dusk conjures up one image–the timber doodle– known to most people as the woodcock. After the sun sets, I like to find a nice woodcock display area–just about any place in open country where the soil is moist and woods and field meet. At the very moment that evening swallows up the trees, so it’s not quite dark but is just exactly too dark for an owl to make out a woodcock’s squatting silhouette, one timber doodle will begin to “peent.”
(Recording of “peent”)
Soon another will join him, and then another–and before you know it, woodcocks are peenting all around you. They’re chunky shorebirds related to sandpipers, with a long bill and very short legs. If you find one in your flashlight, you can watch how it pulls in its neck and opens its bill to call out each peent. Try to keep the light fixed on him–as the evening grows just a little darker, suddenly the light level will be exactly right and he’ll burst into his skydance.
A couple of wing feathers whistle in a lovely chittering sound as the woodcock spirals up and up–it may fly right into a low cumulus cloud, wings chittering all the way. When it’s high enough–usually about 300 feet up, it will burst into song–warbling like a canary high overhead. Then suddenly it stops singing–you may hear the whoosh of its descent as it zigzags down like a fallen leaf–and once again it begins to “peent.” Listen to a woodcock’s whole skydance display. You’ll hear a few peents, then the wings chittering as it spirals up, then its warbing song high in the air, and then its drop to the ground and renewed “peenting”.
(Recording of a woodcock’s entire display)
Woodcocks eat mostly earthworms, which they pull from wet soil with their extremely long bill–the bill is almost three inches long, which is striking on a bird whose body is less than eight inches long. Now if most birds stuck their bills three inches down into the earth to grab a worm, they’d have a problem. If the beak was closed to begin with, they couldn’t force it open against the wet, compacted soil to grab the worm. And yet if the beak was open to begin with, they’d end up with a mouthful of dirt. The woodcock avoids this problem with a wonderful adaptation. Unlike most birds, whose hard beaks are made from material much like our fingernails, the tip of a woodcock’s bill is muscular and flexible, plus it’s loaded with nerve endings–a woodcock can probe into the soil and actually feel for worms with this exquisitely sensitive organ. Then, when it locates a worm, it can grab it with the mobile tip without having to force the rest of the beak open as well.
Aldo Leopold wrote of it, “The woodcock is a living refutation of the theory that the utility of a game bird is to serve as a target, or to pose gracefully on a slice of toast. No one would rather hunt woodcock in October than I, but since learning of the sky dance I find myself calling one or two birds enough. I must be sure that, come April, there be no dearth of dancers in the sunset sky.”
(Recording of a Woodcock)
That was Aldo Leopold, this is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”