Sky dance of the timberdoodle

Find out more about the American woodcock, or timberdoodle, and the unique mating ritual of this small, migratory bird.

The annual spring bird migration is underway with numerous ducks, geese and songbirds returning to Michigan after a winter down south. Many large and colorful birds garner most of the attention, but one often overlooked bird is the American woodcock. This tiny game bird has a most interesting mating ritual and one that should be witnessed to truly appreciate. Initially, youth and adults may not find this small bird attractive, but once they experience its mating routine, their appreciation will increase beyond its hunting and table fare appeal.

The American woodcock (Scolopax minor) is a small, brown, well-camouflaged bird that inhabits Eastern North America. Its habitat is brushy wetlands, forest edges and old fields. The American woodcock is often referred to as the timberdoodle because of its preferred habitat. A woodcock’s long beak is well-adapted to probing soft soil in pursuit of earthworms—its favorite meal. As a result, the woodcock is a seasonal resident of Michigan, migrating in spring and fall to favorable locations for food.

Most small game hunters will recognize the woodcock for its sudden flight burst and helicopter type of ascent. They are often considered a supplement to grouse hunting and offer challenging hunting opportunities.

Spring is a particular exciting time of year to seek out this small game bird even though the hunting season is closed. It is at this time the male woodcock will display a sky dance to attract a female. The male woodcock will locate an open clearing to attract a female for mating, but only under low light conditions. Sounds romantic, right? This ritual only takes place at sunset and before sunrise.

The male begins on the ground stepping his feet and making a verbal peent sound. After a short time, he will take flight in a dazzling, circular display up to a height of 100 or more feet and emitting a tweeting/twitter sound. Once this showy display is complete, he will dramatically drop from flight and lands very near his original location, if not to the exact spot! This performance is repeated again and again until it is either too dark, too light or his actions have enticed a female woodcock to join his company.

Aldo Leopold wrote about this amazing, spring ritual in his famous book, “Sand County Almanac.” Leopold wrote a year’s worth of phenology events that were put into this book for all to enjoy his interpretation of various natural phenomena. This is a great book for personal enjoyment and to share natural outdoor events with youth.

Get a copy of “A Sand County Almanac,” find some woodcocks and take youth outdoors for an evening to watch a sky dance. It will be worth the effort and an experience youth will remember.

MSU Extension encourages participation in new experiences that are safe and expose youth to science involvement with 4-H Science: Asking Questions and Discovering Answers. Please contact me at for ideas on spending time outdoors with youth.

Michigan State University Extension and the Michigan 4-H Youth Development program help to create a community excited about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). 4-H STEM programming seeks to increase science literacy, introducing youth to the experiential learning process that helps them to build problem-solving, critical-thinking and decision-making skills. Youth who participate in 4-H STEM are better equipped with critical life skills necessary for future success. To learn more about the positive impact of Michigan 4-H youth in STEM literacy programs, read our 2015 Impact Report: “Building Science Literacy and Future STEM Professionals.

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