For the Birds Radio Program: April Dusk
An April day is filled with loveliness and hope, from the pre-dawn carol of chickadees and robins through golden sunset shimmering on soft green buds. And my favorite time of all is when twilight dims and shadows loom, when frog music fills the air. The sharp whistles of spring peepers, delicate comb-scraping sounds of chorus frogs, and occasional quacking of wood frogs–the pleasing dissonance of hundreds of lusty amphibians all bursting with joyful anticipation–all this overloads my senses like Thanksgiving satiation, and fills me with the joyful sense that all is right with the world.
Something deep within me stirs when a bittern starts up with its “thunder pumper” calls. I don’t know why such a peculiar, gulping sound, so comical and weird, can be so moving, but whenever I hear it, I feel a surge of happiness reaching down to my very soul.
The soft hoots of a great homed owl or strident cackles of a barred owl always startle me in the same pleasant way that I’m surprised when a good friend turns up unexpectedly.
And even better, if I’m in the right place in the north woods at the right time, I might hear what sounds like a truck’s backing-up alarm, a steady beep beep beep beep beep. The excitement of hearing our tiniest owl, the saw-whet, is exceeded only when I scan the bare branches of the trees and actually see the bird in action. By daytime, saw-whets are sedate and motionless, roosting in a spruce branch and trusting in their cryptic coloration to avoid jays and crows. By night they’re extraordinarily animated. Their narrow field of view and inability to turn their eyes cause them to move their body and head every which way searching for prey. They aren’t actively hunting when they call, but they thrust their head forward with every “beep” like a nocturnal cuckoo clock. The saw-whet owl seems too cute and tiny to succeed as a predator, this young Arthur whose strength and courage take everyone by surprise.
As the last robins quiet down for the night, we hear a shy little “peent” coming from the edge of a woodlot. Another comes from another direction. The peents are quiet but insistent. Suddenly, from exactly where the last peent emerged, a delicate chittering sound spirals up toward the sky. A woodcock has started his skydance.
The American woodcock is the Cyrano de Bergerac of the bird world-plain, even homely, in appearance, with an unusually long proboscis, yet filled with deep longings that he can only express under cloak of darkness. Defenseless against predators, the bird with the distinction of having the slowest top speed of any bird (only 6-8 miles per hour by some reckonings), and a tasty meal by hawk or human standards, the woodcock has struck upon the strategy of limiting his courtship rituals to nightfall when hawks are asleep, with much of the action up in the sky where owls do not search for prey.
I first learned of the Woodcock’s skydance when I read Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac. Leopold wove science and lyricism into his writing, noting “the dancer demand[s] a romantic light intensity of exactly 0.05 foot candles.” Leopold was puzzled by the fact that woodcocks never seem to peent in grass, but rather on bare patches of soil, but concluded that “it is a matter of legs. The woodcock’s legs are short, and his struttings cannot be executed to advantage in dense grass or weeds, nor could his lady see them there.”
It’s the woodcock’s wing feathers that produce the chittering sounds as he spirals upward and upward. Suddenly he starts warbling a rich liquid song, and zigzags to the ground like a falling leaf He lands close to where he started, and immediately begins “peenting” all over again. During the time he’s up in the air, you can run closer and closer to his peenting spot, crouch low, and enjoy front row seats for the next performance. If you’re close enough, you may even get to hear the little hiccup he makes before each peent.
Considering the woodcock’s slow and noisy flight, one might conclude that they make easy targets, but nothing could be further from the truth. Their erratic flight and cryptic coloration make them difficult enough to shoot that relatively few hunters bother with them. It’s just as well. As Aldo Leopold wrote, “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.”