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Inside the Outdoors: Nature has a “Big Dance” of its own

Inside the Outdoors with Mike Rahn

Photo illustration / Shutterstock.com

With the possible exception of the Super Bowl, there is no athletic happening that captures the imagination and attention of American sports fans more surely and completely than the so-called “big dance,” the national collegiate tournament held at the end of each college basketball season.

The big dance analogy is appropriate, for it is not so unlike an invitation-only social affair. Some teams qualify for the 64-team event by winning a preliminary tournament in their own athletic conference. But most of the 64-team field is made up of college basketball teams whose performance during the season has been judged outstanding. Like a coveted invitation to an elite social event, it’s an honor to be invited.

There is another dance that in most years follows soon after the nets are cut down at the crowning of the college basketball champion. It’s a dance that occurs out of doors, in the muted light of dusk or dawn, performed ritually by that enigmatic woodland creature we met here in a recent column: the American woodcock.

That column dwelled on the pioneering nature of this quail-size migratory game bird, which returns from southern wintering grounds so early in spring that it often threatens its own survival, a time when wintry conditions persist over much of the land. This year, though there is still deep snow, there is little frost beneath it, thanks to its insulating effects. As bare, moist ground emerges with rising air temperatures and growing sunlight intensity, returning woodcock will zero in on these areas favorable to their survival.

It is after their return here—and prompted by hormones that govern reproduction—that woodcock engage in one of the most unusual and fascinating mating rituals among wild creatures. That ritual is the so-called “sky dance” that males perform to capture the attention and demonstrate their worth to the females of their species. Fortunately, it is a ritual that can be witnessed by ordinary folks like you and me, not just biologists and researchers on intimate terms with this secretive little bird.


The woodcock’s dance floor is an open, field-like area amid or adjacent to young forest, one typically composed of aspen, birch or alder, these fields perhaps studded with the occasional willow clump or small conifer. But openness is a requirement. So, too, is a very specific light intensity for the dance to begin. A scientist might describe this light intensity in “foot candles,” which is the amount of illumination from a light source at a distance of one foot. To the rest of us, it’s more simply the light intensity of dusk or early dawn.

When the light intensity is right, the dance typically begins with the arrival of a male woodcock alighting in this field or forest opening. He might be visible through binoculars, or with the naked eye if we are close enough. If we are quiet and still, a woodcock is likely to tolerate our presence nearby. He will likely stride about with the less-than-graceful gait characteristic of woodcock, tilting his head and uttering a series of nasal calls that have been described as an insect-like buzz, or “peent,” as well as a gurgle-like call phonetically described as “tuk-o.”

After what could be a long series of these vocals, the male woodcock lifts off from the ground, its accelerating wing beats creating a musical twitter. The flight begins as a wide circling pattern, growing smaller and tighter in diameter as the woodcock’s elevation increases. At a height that could be nearly three football fields’ distance above the ground, the woodcock hovers briefly, then glides back to the ground on a zig-zag course, landing in virtually the same place from which he launched himself moments before.

Photo illustration / Shutterstock.com

This display is likely to be repeated multiple times until foreclosed by darkness or full daylight. Ideally, following one of these flight displays another bird will glide in from the cover nearby. If it is another male, our performer will attempt to chase off the competition, often with a “cac-cac-cac” vocal threat and warning. But if he has attracted a female, the response will be entirely different. The male will approach her, walking on stiff legs, sounding a courtship note and raising his wings, this display ultimately ending in their mating.

Woodcock nests are typically located in woodlands not far from an open sky dance area, which is sometimes also called a “singing ground,” for the sounds made in courtship flight. A typical clutch of eggs is four, and chicks hatch at about 25 days, give or take. The woodcock’s life cycle is not as visible in all its stages as that of many birds, but some of the most reliable researchers conclude that—unlike some of its shorebird relatives—male and female woodcock do not bond in the monogamous sense, nor do males assist in the rearing of young.

With or without a male’s parenting help, woodcock hatching and chick survival rates are high. This may be due to their amazingly effective plumage camouflage, and to the protective instincts of hens, which—when confronted with intruders or predators—will attempt to decoy the threat away from their nearby chicks.

With the tardy and fitful arrival of real spring weather, some of Nature’s performers are still waiting in the wings for their time onstage. For the sky dancing woodcock, it will be a performance both figurative and literal.

And one well worth being in the audience for!


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Mike Rahn, columnist

Opinion by Mike Rahn
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