In early spring, woodcocks establish territories known as “singing grounds” where they can perform vocalizations and ground displays. These areas are usually located in clearings in brushy areas or in open areas of young forests.
Spring courtship in the bird world encompasses various types of struts, fluttering, flapping, and vocalizations; but in this area, there’s nothing quite like timberdoodle romance.
American woodcocks have several unique nicknames to match their unique appearance. Timberdoodle, bog sucker and night partridge are among the names that have been given to this long-beaked, plump-bodied bird found most often in moist overgrown pastures, woodlands and forested floodplain areas.
In autumn, woodcocks are gamebirds known for their erratic flight patterns that provide challenging targets for hunters. In spring, they’re known for unique courtship routines that famed naturalist Aldo Leopold referred to as their “sky dance.” Before getting to that, here’s more about the bird.
The American woodcock (Scolopax minor) is usually found along the edges of moist forest and woodland areas. The bird is approximately 11 inches from the tip of its bill to the end of its tail. It has a darkish brown back and buff-colored underbelly, which is ideal for blending in with the dead leaves and dry vegetation of its woodland surroundings. Its most identifiable characteristic is a long (more than two inches) needle-like beak, which is useful for plucking worms, insects and other invertebrates from moist soil. In Missouri, they are most common in the eastern part of the state along the Mississippi, but can be found statewide, particularly during fall and spring migrations and this brings us back to their unique courtship rituals.
In early spring, woodcocks establish territories known as “singing grounds” where they can perform vocalizations and ground displays. These areas are usually located in clearings in brushy areas or in open areas of young forests. Courtship takes place at dusk. While on the ground, males vocalize several loud “peents” to attract a female. The male then takes off and ascends as high as 2-300 feet. Then the male spirals downward back to the ground and usually lands in the same spot from whence he took off. This can take place for an hour or more over a period of several evenings until males and females find each other.
Though there are woodcock courtship displays in southwest Missouri, most of the bird’s breeding, nesting and brood-rearing activities in Missouri occur in the eastern part of the state in the Mississippi lowland areas. The peenting and aerial displays that occur here in southwest Missouri are usually cases of hormonally charged males “feeling their oats” and instinctually prepping themselves for actual courtship that occurs in the eastern parts of the state.
The end result of all this activity is a female laying up to four eggs in a ground nest set amongst dead leaves. The incubation takes 19-22 days. Two weeks after hatching, the young can fly short distances. At the end of four weeks, they’re almost fully grown. The family breaks up when the chicks are six to eight weeks old.
People interested in seeing this unique courtship display might – with a little luck – be able to view it on March 6 at the Springfield Conservation Nature Center program “Woodcock Watch.” The program is from 6-8 p.m. Volunteer Naturalist Dan Liles will take participants on a three-mile hike at a nearby area where it’s hoped they’ll be able to view woodcock activity. Participants should dress warmly and wear hiking shoes. Registration for the free program, which is for ages 8-adult, begins March 1 and must be done online at mdc.mo.gov/SouthwestEvents . People can find out about other events at the Nature Center by calling 417-888-4237.