For the Birds Radio Program: American Woodcock

Original Air Date: April 21, 1995

Today Laura Erickson talks about the Dennis Franz of the bird world. 4:06

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April and melted snow and sleet and rain eventually translate into succulent earthworms and the two birds that most love to eat them—the American Robin and American Woodcock. Northland robins haven’t been happy most of the month, stuck eating old, dried-up mountain ash berries and crab apples when they’re really yearning for juicy wrigglers, but they mostly seem to be making the best of the weather, and during brief respites from snow and rain they burst into song, figuring that even if it doesn’t look or feel like spring it might as well sound like it.

The other worm eater is the woodcock—a woodland shorebird found throughout the northland in the woods edging clearcuts and meadows. Woodcocks are hard to see, with their exceptionally well-camouflaged plumage, but it’s easy to tell where they’ve been dining by the little holes their bill makes in the mucky soil where they’ve probed for worms. Twice I’ve looked at these woodcock borings for several minutes and then almost stepped on the bird itself, which flushed with a lovely chittering of wings. It seems odd that the tiny holes it makes are more noticeable than the chunky bird itself, but that’s exactly why such a tasty bird survives.

Woodcock almost literally have eyes in the back of their head—their ears are placed below rather than behind their eyes, and those big brown eyes are higher and farther back than those of most birds. They can spot an owl flying in from any direction, and squat or take evasive action as the situation warrants.

Woodcocks were never that heavily hunted in Minnesota, but in Wisconsin and other states to the south and east of us, they were shot so heavily in the 1800s and early 1900s that the National Biological Survey became concerned and labeled them a vanishing game bird. Fortunately, their numbers seem to be pretty stable in the Northland. Only the most patient and skilled hunters can bag a woodcock, and the tasty if modest dinners they afford are apparently worth the effort, though Aldo Leopold wrote that “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.”

This annual sky dance of the timberdoodle has been delayed a bit this year because of the junky weather. The male woodcock is the Dennis Franz of the bird world. He’s a squat, dumpy little guy, spending his days digging for worms, but somehow, like the squat, dumpy actor of LAPD Blue, he’s managed to make females forget about his dull exterior and see him as a sex symbol. As twilight becomes truly dark, a woodcock sits in an opening, belching out dull little peents with his improbably long proboscis, when suddenly something magic transforms him, and suddenly he’s airborne, spiraling up toward the stars, his wings making a lovely chittering sound. Higher and higher he goes, sometimes reaching low clouds, and then bursts into song, warbling sweetly, wings chittering the accompaniment. But as suddenly as it started, he turns back into Dennis Franz, drops to earth like a fallen leaf, and belches out another peent. After a few minutes, he transforms himself again, testament that any of us can rise above our dull, ordinary selves at least for a few moments now and again to become something special, and even magic.With worms under frozen ground, and wind, rain, sleet, and even snow every few days, woodcock don’t have much reason to dance yet, but they soon will—their dances and income taxes are the only two guarantees that come with April.