Dear Bird Folks,
I was reading about the mating display of the woodcock. Their courtship is said to be quite unusual. Is that true and where should I go to see it?
– Travis, Chatham
This sounds like one of those tricks that used to be played on rookies in summer camp. You know like, “Yo, new kid, do you want to go on a snipe hunt?” Or maybe a bad pickup line, “Hey, would you like me to show you the woodcock’s mating display?” Well, as hokey as it sounds, the woodcock really does have one of the most unusual mating displays in all of nature and it takes place all spring long in probably every town on the Cape.
The American woodcock is one of the oddest looking birds that you are likely to see around here. It is chubby like a bobwhite, with a very long bill like a shorebird. (For you non-birders, that means it looks like a guinea pig chewing on a swizzle stick.) It is rarely seen because it only comes out to feed at dusk. The other thing that male woodcocks do at dusk, in the spring, is a colorful mating display. A display that is so unique that it makes John Travolta in “Saturday Night Fever” look like a librarian. I’ve seen woodcocks at Fort Hill in Eastham, the Massachusetts Audubon property in Wellfleet, and along the bike trail behind the National Seashore Visitor Center. But there are tons of places all over the Cape. If you have any birding friends, you should ask them if they know of any good woodcock watching spots in your area. Most birders have their favorite woodcock spots, but they may not want to tell you, just like I’m not going to tell you my favorite spot.
Once you decide where to go, dress warmly, much warmer than you think you should. Arrive just at sunset and keep your ears up. Before the woodcocks display, they give off this weird nasal “peent” call. Listen for the peent call and move slowly towards it, but not too close – remember this guy is looking for a mate. After about a dozen or so fo those peent calls, the bird will burst into flight, quickly ascending in an ever widening spiral. At this point, the peent call stops and the bird’s wings produce a tweeting sound. The woodcock’s flight pattern now takes the shape of a tornado – small sprials near the ground with wider circles at the top. (It should be noted that this is an actual description of a woodcock mating flight. I know this sounds like one of those goofy things that I’ve embellished on, but this bird is truly unusual and needs no help from me.) The woodcock continues these spirals until it is so high that most of us can no longer see it, about 300 feet up.
At the very height of its flight, the woodcock hovers momentarily and sings out a series of liquid notes. It then starts to fall to earth, tumbling like it has been shot, and all the while it is still singing. Finally it breaks into a glide, stops singing, and quietly lands back near the same spot where it started from. As soon as the woodcock lands it starts that peent call again, and within a minute or two it will be back 300 feet in the air singing its brains out. Why does the woodcock go through such a crazy ritual? To attract the babes, why else?
You still have plenty of time to check out the woodcocks this season, they are singing every night until June. But if I were you, Travis, I’d tell your friends that you are going out for pizza or to a movies. Telling them that you are going out on a cold night to watch woodcocks mating might start too many rumors. And who needs that?