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American woodcocks’ mating ritual is a dizzying, spiraling sight

It’s Valentine’s Day, and this evening birds will be celebrating the occasion in the area’s shrubby fields, pastures and cut-overs. I am, of course, talking about the courtship of the American woodcock.

These birds are not shy about letting you know what they are up to. The females make the males work hard to gain their favor, so the males go all out. The birds don’t seem to mind at all that there might be a crowd of people watching.

That is exactly what I and 15 other birders did last Sunday evening. We gathered at a large clearing to view the spectacular courtship display.

We arrived about 5:40 p.m. and waited patiently for the show to begin in the gathering dusk. Chorus frogs and fox sparrows serenaded us with song. A few red-winged blackbirds and American robins flew over in the fading light.

Then, at 6:15 p.m., a nasal “ peent” sound came from the field edge. Then another, and then another. Three male woodcocks were in the mood and were getting ready for action. The calling lasted a few minutes and then, with an audible whistling of wings, the birds slowly lifted off and rose high into the air like a spacecraft gaining momentum. At the zenith of their flight, the birds began singing a high-pitched chirping song as they plunged back to earth in a dizzying, spiraling flight.

Once back on the ground, they began the calling again, followed by the same flight display. Occasionally the females would buzz right by us or just over our heads as they flew into the field to choose the best-displaying male. This lasted for about 20 minutes and then it was done. The display period is within a small window of time.

The 15-minute walk back to the vehicles through the woods was quiet and pleasant. The stars were shining bright and temperatures were mild. I really thought some owls would be vocal, but they decided to keep silent that evening.

American woodcock are not rare birds. If you live near some open fields, try watching and listening for the woodcock display in your area.