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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Woodcock Courtship

Air Date: Week of

(Photo: guizmo_68)

They’re short, stout, and reclusive. But when it comes to attracting a mate, the male American woodcock pulls out all the stops. Bob Speare, a naturalist with the Massachusetts Audubon Society, takes us to the woodcock’s singing grounds in Ipswich, Massachusetts to watch its unusual mating ritual.


YOUNG: Spring is here. And for one small and usually shy bird, love is, literally, in the air. This time every year, the male American woodcock descends on a grassy spot called a "singing field" and begins a unique courting display. Bob Speare, a naturalist with the Massachusetts Audubon Society, has been watching this show for years and invited us to join him one evening at the Society sanctuary in Ipswich.


(Photo: tokara)

SPEARE: Oh, this is going to be a good night. I can feel it. We can hang out right here until it comes in. A woodcock is kind of a really silly looking bird. It's a short, stout bird that has a very long bill that it uses to probe into the ground to search for earthworms. It has short, rounded wings. It does have eyes set way back on the top of its head. And it allows the bird to see almost 360 degrees to see what's going on around it.


SPEARE: As we're getting closer to the time that the woodcocks come out, we're starting to see some of these day birds and other animals kind of punching out for the day and going home. Once we reach the right candle power of light, we'll probably first hear one of these animals come in. Their wings give a little twittering sound [he imitates twittering sound] as they fly in to that specific spot on the ground. And once they do, they'll almost immediately begin with this nasally peent, peent, peent.


SPEARE: There it is!


SPEARE: And then they'll burst into the air. And again, you'll hear that little [he imitates twittering sound] of the wings as they spiral up several hundred feet, or a couple of hundred feet anyway.


SPEARE: There he goes. There he goes. He's in the air. There he goes. Now he's descending. He's kind of free falling back down, heading back to the same spot. Here he comes. Bang. He's back on the ground.


SPEARE: Exact same spot. Exact same place. There's a quality in that display, that the female is probably gauging in her head to realize, ‘Is this the one for me?’ It's pretty amazing to think that they'll come out in any kind of weather, and just keep going night after night after night, even though nobody's interested. It's very seldom that they actually attract a mate. Yet, they're out there every single night, doing it over and over and over.

YOUNG: Naturalist Bob Speare, watching the woodcocks at the Massachusetts Audubon Society Sanctuary in Ipswich.



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