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Strange Sounds Coming From the Skies

The woodcock is a strange bird, no matter how you look at it. Photo by Peter Sporring

There are woodcocks making weird noises in the fields behind our house that I walk every morning with the dog. I don’t see them as it is still quite dark with only a hint of daybreak on the horizon.  They seem only an arm’s length away as they produce their diagnostic twittering and fluttering in the darkness, and other mating rituals, right in front of me with no apology.  Fine weather this past week has got them stirred up.

During these warm days of March and early April when love is in the air, there are a lot of strange sounds out there as various animals, birds in particular, woo a prospective mate. If you step outside one night, you may hear the peculiar sounds of these woodcocks – odd throaty peents that sound more like a noise made by some faulty part of an electrical station. All at once, the peenting stops, followed by a flutter of wings and an even odder musical twitter which culminates into an almost bluebird-like warble.
No, these sounds are not coming from an invisible alien vehicle departing for outer space. This is all part of the skydance of an American woodcock. The sounds we hear are both vocal and also made by the whirring of the bird’s wings. Meanwhile, the female is sitting somewhere on the ground all glassy eyed as the male performs his nuptials, often spiraling high above the ground, then descending again to almost the very spot from which he commenced his performance, totally exhausted by the effort.
If the sounds coming from the performing male are peculiar, then the bird itself is even more so. Like the Wilson’s snipe, whose winnowing wing sounds we will soon hear above the wetlands, the woodcock belongs to the shorebird family. Actually, it is really a sandpiper which has little interest in the shoreline habitat where we see most members of this family, but rather, prefers woodland habitat. Unlike its cousins who nervously scurry up and down the beach, darting here and there for morsels at the water’s edge, the woodcock’s short little legs are of little use, except to keep the bird upright in its woodland environment.
But it doesn’t stop here. The woodcock is perhaps one of our best examples of evolution. Here is a bird who may have dashed along the shorelines at one time with its ancestors, but for reasons best known to itself, became interested in woodland habitat, perhaps thousands of years ago. Still equipped with a long bill like its cousins, it started putting it to good use, probing into the deep, moist forest soil in search of – not crustaceans like its relatives, but earthworms, of all things. Because its eyes were unable to see past the layer of ground litter, its bill eventually became sensitized with nerve endings, expertly allowing the bill to zero in on worm vibrations.
As generations of woodcocks spent more time poking and prodding in the mud, their numbers likely started to decline at some point, because predators were having a field day sneaking up behind them and snatching their unsuspecting prey. To survive, the eyes of the woodcock over thousands of years began to enlarge enormously to compensate for dim conditions, and then began to migrate to the upper side of the head, so it could safely probe in the soil while literally looking over its shoulders for approaching dangers. But in the process, something had to give.
To make room for the oversized eyes, the brain was gradually shoved so it trickles in an upside down position compared with its relatives’ brains. Other things had to go too – the ears. Normally behind the eyes in most birds, the ears of the woodcock have been forced around so they now lie in front of the eyes. Whether or not their new position aids in locating prey is uncertain, but it appears during the course of time, there was no other place else for these ears to go, but forwards, unless they were to end up in the back of the neck somewhere. As if these peculiarities weren’t embarrassing enough to a bird that even looks out of proportion, the bird has been given a number of rather
uncomplimentary names such as blind snipe, timber doodle, big-headed snipe, bog sucker, big-eyes, wall-eyed, and big mud snipe.
So keep your eyes open, but mostly your ears, for the presence of this woodland bird, that has managed to adapt itself to a life away from the
mainstream of its shorebird relatives.

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About the Author: Terry Sprague became interested in nature at an early age. "Growing up on the family farm at Big Island, 12 miles north of Picton, on the shore of the beautiful Bay of Quinte, I was always interested in the natural world around me. During my elementary school days at the small one-room school I attended on Big Island, I received considerable encouragement from the late Marie Foster, my teacher in Grades 6 through 8. Her home was a short distance from where I lived and through the years she was responsible for developing my interest in birds. The late Phil Dodds, a former editor with the Picton Gazette, also a great nature enthusiast, suggested I undertake a nature column - a column I have submitted weekly since 1965. The column has since expanded to the Napanee Beaver and the Tweed News. Life has been good, and through the years I have enjoyed working with such nature related agencies as Glenora Fisheries Research as a resource technician, Sandbanks Provincial Park as a park interpreter and Quinte Conservation as a naturalist and outdoor events coordinator. As a nature interpreter, currently working from my home office, I now create and lead numerous interpretive events in the area and offer indoor audio/visual presentations to interested groups. Could one who is interested in nature have enjoyed a more exhilarating period in the work force?" Terry's website is www.naturestuff.net

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  1. Thank you Borys for recalling that sighting. It was February 19th, 2008. A bit unusual as it is difficult to determine if it was an ornery late departure (there are several winter records), or an exceptionally early arrival.Your flight across the foyer of the Quinte Conservation office left no doubt in my mind. Your vocalization was flawless and your armpits whistling as you flew toward the reception counter impressed all the staff that memorable day!

  2. Borys Holowacz says:

    Terry,

    I remember depicting the flight of a Woodcock 5 or so years ago. It was January and very unlikely for a woodcock to show its face in The County.
    After I acted out my rendition of a flying Woodcock across the office floor at Quinte Conservation, you gave me the thumbs up. I had spotted one of the earliest arrivals of this strange looking bird.
    Still don’t know how you figured out I was right as I flew across the room 🙂

    (Perhaps some other observations of the bird I provided you convinced you)

  3. Cheryl Anderson says:

    Thank you for this lovely description, Terry. Songs from the skies are so important and you help us to remember to listen for them.

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