Nearly every morning and evening during April and May, the Arb plays host to an elaborate spectacle as the American Woodcock performs its annual rendition of the “sky dance.” With stubby legs, a plump body and a long, unwieldy bill that is used to probe the soil for worms, this clumsy-looking bird hardly looks the part of a celebrated dancer. Nevertheless, when trying to attract a mate, male woodcocks put on quite a show.
The sky dance begins at dusk when the male woodcock emerges from the forest and enters a carefully selected stage – usually a small patch of short grass, sand or gravel. Strutting around this stage, he voices a series of nasally peents about 2 seconds apart. After a minute or two, the peenting abruptly stops and the woodcock takes flight, zooming around in acrobatic spirals up to 300 feet above the ground. As the male flies, air rushing through the outermost flight feathers produces a melodic twittering. Next, in the words of Aldo Leopold who gave the sky dance its name, “Up and up he goes, the spirals steeper and smaller, the twittering louder and louder, until the performer is only a speck in the sky.” Suddenly, the bird plunges toward the ground emitting a “liquid warble” as he falls. Then, leveling off just feet from the ground, the woodcock lands near the original stage and resumes peenting. This routine is repeated for approximately an hour before the performance is concluded for the night.
If you would like to witness the sky dance firsthand, take a walk in the Upper Arb at dusk. Listen for a peenting woodcock in open fields or its twittering wings overhead. Try to locate the spot where the bird is displaying and, when the woodcock flies up, move in for a closer look. Find a seat nearby, wait quietly and enjoy the show.
-Jared Beck '14 for the Cole Student Naturalists
Photo courtesy of Wildlife Management Institute