For the Birds Radio Program: American Woodcock
The American Woodcock is one of the first migrants of the year, and also the bird I most associate with streaming northern lights and a glowing moon. This squat, dumpy bird hunkers down in the mucky forest floor by day, slurping up earthworms with his improbable proboscis, ever watching with bulging eyeballs for predators that may sneak up from above or behind. Every spring evening as dusk deepens, he starts belching out occasional “peents,” still squatting on the ground. But suddenly something in the starlight magically transforms him into an elegant ballet dancer of the sky, and he takes wing. A woodcock has magical, musical wings, wings that sing as they beat, and we hear the delicate twittering song as he spirals up toward the sky. He’s hard to pick out in the night, but if we do detect his silhouette passing by the moon, we can sometimes follow him through the spiral. When he reaches a great height, almost touching the clouds, he suddenly bursts into rich, melodic chirping, and then, like Icarus, falls to earth to resume his drab existence once again. But his transformation into a sky-dancer takes place many times in the course of an evening, and we like to sit in the starlight, mesmerized by the performance, getting lost in the beauty of whispering trees and trilling frogs and winnowing snipe and starlight and moonlight and an occasional owl hoot and all that makes up a north country spring night.
In the best woodcock fields, we may hear over a dozen of these persistent courters, and we know exactly which stands of trees harbor them by day. When I was younger and more acquisitive, I used to tramp through forests trying to get a daytime glimpse. I would often find little holes in the oozy mud, made by their long beaks probing for worms, but never once did I find a spring woodcock on my own, though my old dog Scout flushed a few. I used to feel bad that I didn’t have the skills to find woodcock myself, but now I know that the reason I never saw them was because woodcocks choose not to be seen. These are private birds, birds who yearn to hide themselves in still, fallen leaves; birds whose destiny is to become one with the earth by day. Even by night, they prefer us to listen and imagine their beauty, these Cyrano de Bergeracs of the bird world, short of beauty, long of beak, but capable of composing irresistible expressions of love in the evening sky.
Woodcock sing throughout April, on quiet country roads that pass along clearings or fields on the edge of woods, and when we hear their lovely performance, our hearts, too, for a moment at least, break free of the shackles that bind us to earth to spiral toward heaven, carried on the singing wings of this magical, transforming bird.