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A Talk on the Wild Side.

American Woodcock Know They Can Dance; Want to See Them?

Woodcock are good at hiding out. Photo by T. Oots

Kyle Daly is a wildlife biologist working for the Service in Minnesota. Kyle conducted research on American woodcock breeding ecology and survey assessments for his M.S. degree from the University of Minnesota. Here, he shares some tips on seeing this elusive bird’s stunning dance.

American Woodcock are a highly cryptic bird species and are rarely seen by people because they avoid harm by sitting down and remaining perfectly still, letting their camouflage do its work. However, this bird exhibits one of the most conspicuous breeding displays in the avian world -- the “sky dance. 

Every spring, males “dance” to attract mates by spiraling through the air while making a twittering sound with their wings.  They then land, give a series of nasally “peents,” or vocal calls, and return to the skies to repeat the process.

Because male woodcock take no part in nesting or care of the offspring, they can continually display and breed with different females.  Males perform their dance almost every night from early spring into early summer starting shortly after sunset.  Displays vary in length depending on weather conditions and moon phase, but average about 30 minutes.  But on clear nights with a full moon, males sometimes display all night long.

Females are picky when it comes to mating, but they will be most attracted to the males that perform the best, and have quality nesting and brood rearing habitat near their territories.  

Interested?  Given your timing and ability to stay hidden, you can see the “sky dance” of the woodcock with your own eyes.  Here are a few tips.

1) Know Where to Find Them

Woodcock are a unique shorebird native to the Eastern United States and Canada.  Although their closest relatives occupy wetlands, marshes and shorelines, woodcock are considered an upland species; feeding, breeding and resting in young forests. 

woodcock habitat

Young forests contain small trees, shrubs, thickets, and other dense growth. The thick vegetation that grows in these young forests provide essential homes for a wide variety of native wildlife, including birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles and insects.

The first step, then, is to make sure you’re in their range and that you’re near a young forest.

Male woodcock establish their territories, known as “singing grounds” in openings in the forests, so to find woodcock performing, look for young forests and shrubby forest openings  on the landscape.  Ideally for woodcock, this cover will be a mix of breeding, nesting and brood rearing habitat.  Male woodcock also use abandoned farm fields as singing grounds.  Areas with recent logging activity or wildlife management activities geared toward creating forest openings and young forest habitat are great places to see woodcock in the spring.

Unfortunately woodcock are losing their habitat across their range. Forests are  becoming too old and unusable to the woodcock, or sometimes young forests are converted to non-forested lands. Woodcock surveys indicate populations have declined by almost half over the past 50 years as their habitat shrinks. Biologists and forest managers are hard at work to stabilize and return these bird’s population to historic levels.  You can see some of the work to benefit woodcock and other young forest species at http://timberdoodle.org/.

2) Know When to Go 

Woodcock are a migratory bird, spending their winters in the southern United States, flying north in the spring to breed. Depending on your latitude, woodcock will arrive and start their sky dances at different times, arriving farther north later in the spring.  Winter weather and snow depth can also delay the woodcock migration.  Males typically arrive a week earlier than females to establish their sky dance territories.  Typically, if there is no snow on the ground, you can expect there to be woodcock around. Currently there is a project tracking woodcock migrations, where you can see the current migration status and locations of many female woodcock across the country (females  are a  bit bigger than males and can wear the satellite transmitters).  

If they don't want to be seen, it is hard to spy woodcock. Photo by Kyle Daly/USFWS

3) Look for Woodcock Signs

Woodcock are very difficult to see if they don’t want to be seen. The sky dance of the male woodcock offers a rare glimpse of this species. If you have located an area you think woodcock may be using based on the forest structure, check it out during the day and look for additional signs of woodcock. If you see “splash,” or woodcock droppings, on the ground or probe holes in the soil, the area is probably a good location to see woodcock.  Splash is white and about a quarter or half dollar in size. Probe holes are left behind from the woodcock hunting for worms and other soil invertebrates that it eats. They look like someone have been shoving a pencil in the ground over and over in a small area.       

If you find woodcock habitat and see these other signs, it is a safe bet to look for males “dancing” in the evening. Dress for all kinds of weather, especially early in the spring when it still may be pretty cold. Also, it is best to wear dark clothing, even camouflage, so that the woodcock has trouble seeing you. Bring a flashlight to make your way into the woods and bring insect repellant.  If you see a woodcock performing, sit quietly and wait for him to start flying.  When he is flying, you can creep closer to get a better view, and the male will almost always land in the same spot he took off from. Listen for the “peents” and the twitter of the wings because you will most likely hear them before you see them.    

If you are excited to see a woodcock sky dance but are still unsure of where to go, it may be a good idea to contact your state wildlife agency, or state, county, or local park system. They may know where to go, or may even be guiding people out on nightly woodcock excursions.

The woodcock sky dance is a true marvel of nature, and if you follow these guides, and have a bit of luck, you can see one.

timberdooble.org doesn't seem to be working.
# Posted By | 4/29/15 8:54 PM

The domain name and underlying URL for the Helping Woodcock website contain a typo. The correct domain is timberdoodle.org and the URL is http://timberdoodle.org (but you have timberdooble.org). Thank you for the article and the links.
# Posted By Greg Tomerlin | 3/11/16 12:23 PM

Very interesting! Thank you!
# Posted By Judy Tipton | 3/11/16 2:29 PM

Your link to the story appears broken, the video is not apparent & I had to go look for it. It's a great story of the Woodcock, but "they can dance" is not obvious. Thanks for posting their story.
# Posted By Linda Yellin | 3/13/16 11:25 AM
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