Nature Nut: A reason they're called sky dancers

There it was, at eye level, hovering briefly as if it were a helicopter ready to rise.

This was my first encounter with this long-beaked aerial acrobat during a grouse hunting foray in the woods of southeast Minnesota. There was a temptation to shoot it, but between not knowing what it was, and being surprised at its brief hovering, I just watched in amazement.

Although that was more than 40 years ago, I'm still glad I didn't shoot the bird once I learned more about its amazing behaviors. Besides, I probably would have missed anyway, so I saved on some ammo.

Woodcock are seldom seen, but can be found throughout southeast Minnesota and many other northern tier states during spring, summer, and fall. They are somewhat odd looking birds, mostly due to their long beak which one normally finds in birds that spend their time near water.

However, woodcocks, as their name implies, favor woodland settings and use their beak to extract worms from the soil.


As with many animals, the most interesting traits of the woodcock are exhibited during courtship. It is then that the male woodcock becomes a 'sky dancer,' spiraling upward until reaching a few hundred feet. Near the end of his ascent he makes his presence known with 'twittering' sounds created by air moving through his flight feathers.

After he begins quietly ascending, he lands in an open meadow and begins the "woodcock strut.'' This part of courting ritual, during which he hopes to attract a mate, can be likened to some dance moves a guy named Jackson once made famous.

During the strut the woodcock also makes a very loud one-tone sound referred to as a "peent.'' I find listening for peents as the best way to locate good woodcock territory.

I believe the premiere local imitator of the "woodcock strut'' would be Hormel Nature Center Director, Larry Dolphin. Each year, for as long as I can remember, Larry has gone out on many an April night in search of the woodcock. He teaches others the woodcock strut and even tries to sneak up on courting woodcocks.

While the woodcock is doing his sky dance, one can quickly scamper to the site of the last peenting calls and lay down in the tallgrass. If the woodcock again lands near the same location, you can often witness the woodcock strut for yourself before the bird launches for another try, unless of course he scores with his strut.

Outdoorsman and ecologist, Aldo Leopold, wrote of the "Sky Dance'' in his famous book, "A Sand County Almanac.'' In it he noted that one could predict the time of the woodcock courting behavior based upon the foot-candles of subdued light at dusk or dawn during April and May.

While Leopold was a woodcock hunter, he also noted he limited the number he shot so there would be "no dearth of dancers in the sunset sky.''

Although both the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Minnesota DNR indicate woodcock numbers are on the decline, they are still hunted by many, especially in Louisiana where they winter in large numbers. Given they are quite small and not the table delicacy of a grouse or pheasant, I wonder why they need to be hunted at all when they can be enjoyed for so much more without killing them.

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