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Woodcocks and more signs of spring

American Woodcock
Mass Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary
American Woodcock

As the season of mud settles in, this seems like a good time to talk about one if its biggest stars. This worm slurping dumpling of a bird dances its way back into our lives each March, when the aerial displays of the male become staple program fodder for nature centers and bird clubs everywhere. It’s that lovable oddball of the shorebird world, the endlessly entertaining American Woodcock.

Woodcocks are indeed shorebirds, but you won’t see them chasing waves or plying the tidal flats – these are birds of woods and thickets, plump and sluggish birds who specialize on earthworms. They can practically eat them like spaghetti - an old account claims a woodcock ate 22 worms in five minutes. I bet it was a male woodcock who had just seen Cool Hand Luke. In any case, the muddy ground right now is perfect for the vermivorous bird, which is why we’re also seeing robin flocks back on the ground hunting worms after a winter in the trees eating fruit.

With a plumage like a still life of dried leaves, woodcocks are among the most gloriously camouflaged of birds – you’d sooner step on one than spy it on the forest floor. On occasion they get caught out in the open, where they display the charmingly funky locomotion that made them internet stars in the early days of YouTube. There must be a thousand videos of woodcocks doing their groovy, back and forth, head-bobbing walk across a road, typically set to Stayin’ Alive or something Funkadelic-esque. One video, where an adult is dancing with her tiny, fuzzy chicks just has to be seen. In reality, this behavior is apparently a way to coax worms out of the soil. The fact that the woodcocks do this on paved roads shows they aren’t exactly in the advanced class as far as bird intelligence goes.

But their best-known dance is still the sky dance of the displaying males. It starts at dawn or dusk, on the ground. The portly little male first utters an unmusical peent, buzzy and nasal. But suddenly he explodes skywards, specialized wing feathers twittering as he spirals gracefully to an apogee over 300 feet. Finally he zizgags back down like a falling leaf, chirping as he goes. While woodcocks are even now considered among the tastiest of our game birds, my favorite early environmental author Aldo Leopold wrote in 1949 that the sky dance is a “refutation of the theory that the utility of a game bird is to serve as a target, or to pose gracefully on a slice of toast.”

Even the old hunter’s names for woodcock are entertaining – if you’re nature savvy, you may have heard “timberdoodle”, but there’s also “bog sucker” and “Labrador twister." I’m also hoping “worm slurper” catches on, but I don’t have high hopes.

If you want to catch a woodcock show this month, there are at least 20 woodcock walks just at Mass Audubon sanctuaries, including both Long Pasture and Wellfleet Bay, and there’s even one in Cambridge. I’m sure other places have them as well. Or just look and listen anywhere fields and woods come together, especially wet places. They’re not that picky, I hear them displaying next to shopping plazas and other developments, and one male even set up in my backyard on occasion a couple of years ago. Oh, and make sure to watch for them crossing roads. You know they’re coming when you hear Stayin’ Alive…

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.