The plain-plumaged woodcock has found a unique way to woo a mate -- aerial acrobatics.
One of the earliest harbingers of spring in the Harbor Bight region is the aerial show put on by the male American woodcock in hopes of winning a mate. A plump, short-legged bird of the sandpiper family, the woodcock has mottled rusty brown and gray feathers that provide camouflage amidst fallen leaves.
Woodcocks have evolved a spectacular alternative to bright plumage for catching the eye of females. At dusk, early in the breeding season, the show gets underway: a male's call -- an unmistakable, nasal peent, repeated every few seconds -- begins to rise from the ground. Then the bird takes off and spirals high into the sky in a series of loops, ascending to 200 or 300 feet until it is barely a speck in the sky. All the while it flutters the outer three primary feathers on each wing, producing a characteristic twittering sound. Finally, it swoops into a daredevil's dive, singing zleep, zleep all the way, and lands close to its original location.
If the courtship display is pleasing to a female waiting nearby, the birds will mate. In the days afterward, the female constructs a small nest on the ground, typically in an open area, where she lays four buff-colored eggs with brown splotches. In about three weeks, the chicks all hatch within a few hours of one another. Although the young leave the nest almost immediately after hatching, the female will brood them for several weeks to help keep them warm.
The distinctive features of these odd-looking birds are their long bills -- perfect for probing mud in search of earthworms and insect larvae -- and their large eyes, set far back on their heads and capable of 360-degree vision. Woodcocks court and breed in young forests with open areas and winter in bottomland hardwood forests; they rely on abundant earthworms for food. As both habitats are threatened by logging and development, woodcock populations in the eastern United States have also been declining.
Where to See Them: Woodcock displays can be seen in many open grassy areas -- usually adjoining shrubby areas -- and along the coast. Good spots include Brooklyn's Floyd Bennett Field, the Princeton Woods and Rutgers Ecological Preserve. Better yet, join a field trip run by a natural history organization; woodcock are sensitive to disturbance during breeding season, and a trained naturalist will help you enjoy the show without intruding.
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