Monday, April 26, 2010

Woodcock Sky Dance

By Susan Benson,
CNHM Director of Education

It was later in the evening, about a week ago that I was out hooting for a barred owl response. Lately, the barred owls have been frustratingly elusive. However, this particular evening, I heard a sound of another bird that was exciting to hear. The American woodcock was “peenting.” “It was doing what,” you say? Some look funny at me when I say the word. No, “peenting” is not a dirty word. Peenting is sound made by the woodcock during its elaborate courtship display that the male uses to attract females. What a show the male woodcocks provide!

First, the woodcock begins his song and dance at sunset, in a field or clearing. He sings out, calling repeated “peents,” followed by an occasional bobbing or curtsy of his head, a turn, and a repeat of the dance again while broadcasting his song in different directions. After a few bobs and peents, he flies upward into the sky in a wide spiral, moving higher and higher. As he gets higher, his wings whistle, creating a “twittering” sound. How is the twitter made? As air passes between the first primary feathers on his wing, it produces a whistling sound. As the woodcock gets to a height of 200-300 feet, he begins to chirp. The vocal chirping sound marks the descent downward, where he spirals or zig-zags back and forth, diving quickly down to the ground without a sound. Just as the chirping stops is when a look just above the horizon can show him flying in for a landing. When he lands, he often settles in at almost the exact same spot, with hopes that a female is nearby. Then he starts the entire dance again. The display goes on sometimes for at least an hour past sunset, or on moonlit nights, even longer.

The male American Woodcock does not provide care for its young, but continues the display even after females have laid their eggs. Some males will use different song and dance grounds, mating with several females.

It was Aldo Leopold who named the woodcock spring rituals the Sky Dance, as anyone can read in his Sand County Almanac. I learned first about the song and dance while waiting for its flight dance. Once it left off into the air, I would sneak up closer until I was just a few feet away in the dusk light. I watched with delight as it sang and danced. There is magic in experiencing the woodcock dance, and is a spring ritual not just for the woodcock, but for birders like me to enjoy. Try it on your own some night soon. Seat yourself under a bush just off the dance floor and wait, watching against the sunset for the woodcock’s arrival. Once finished watching the display, then curl up on the couch with a copy of Leopold’s book to relive the magic once again.

For over 40 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility and new exhibit, On Lake Owen: The Art of Walter Bohl, in Cable at 13470 County Highway M. Also find us on the web at to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Post your own stories on the Nature Watch blog at

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