April showers must not have got the memo. Absent for much of “the cruelest month,” they finally decided to make a big show on May 1. But after a day of hard rain, the skies have cleared around dusk. Just in time for woodcock music.
What a miracle a woodcock is. Chunky, bug-eyed and no-necked with a Jimmy Durante-like beak, every spring the males of this species become graceful acrobats of the air. To attract a mate, a male will launch himself “skyward,” to quote Aldo Leopold, “in a series of wide spirals, emitting a musical twitter. Up and up he goes, the spirals steeper and smaller, the twittering louder and louder, until the performer is only a speck in the sky. Then, without warning, he tumbles like a crippled plane, giving voice in a soft liquid warble that a March bluebird might envy.”
This evening, I stand at my favorite woodcock theatre – an island of trees and shrubs in South Patrol Road Prairie. Ecologists would call this place an ecotone, “a transition area between two adjacent ecological communities.” Such areas typically teem with “greater species diversity and biological density” than the individual ecological communities. In this particular instance, the forest provides shelter, feeding and nesting habitat for woodcocks. But the adjacent prairie provides the wide open space they need for their elaborate courting rituals.
Along with what I can only imagine are a great many female woodcocks – the females are excessively polite audiences and their camouflage makes them virtually undetectable, especially in the fading light – I relish in the warm-up act. While still on the ground, the males emit “queer throaty peents spaced about two seconds apart ,“ as Leopold accurately observed, “sounding much like the summer call of the nighthawk.”
And then, these comically squat birds launch themselves into the air and become poetry. If their twitters and warbles were physical stuff, it would be glitter, bejeweling the twilight sky. That’s the show, folks. Punctuated by a rain-washed breeze, a distant coyote cry, and a chorus of frogs and toads sweetly calling from the resurgent wetlands all around.
In quoting Leopold about woodcocks, most leave out the part where he talks about hunting them. “No one would rather hunt woodcock in October than I, but since learning of the sky dance I find myself calling one or two birds enough. I must be sure that, come April, there be no dearth of dancers in the sunset sky.”
Since learning of the sky dance, it has been my misfortune to encounter woodcocks in death. But not from hunting. Last year, I happened upon a woodcock in a planter in downtown Chicago – victim of a collision with a building.
Earlier this week, while on a bike ride a few blocks from my house, I came across another – victim of a speeding driver for whom the bird was barely a bump in the road.
Like many bird species, populations of woodcocks have been in free fall, largely due to a loss of habitat. A recent woodcock hunter survey in Illinois revealed a sharp decline in this once popular game species. Hunters reported “very few woodcock to hunt” and “no place to hunt.”
This is one of the many reasons I volunteer to help restore Midewin. In a state in which less than one-tenth of one percent of high quality natural habitat remains, Midewin’s 20,000 acres of recovering natural habitat provides what woodcocks and many other species of native plants and animals need to survive. To flourish.
No dearth of sky dancers here.