Jack Savage's Forest Journal -- Timberdoodle Talent: Skydancing the Day Away

JACK SAVAGE April 27. 2013 10:56PM

It has been said that the bird known as the American Woodcock looks like it was put together by committee, and not a particularly well-functioning committee at that.

With its stubby legs supporting a bulbous body adorned by an undersized head, all unbalanced by any tail or tailfeathers of note, it makes for a curious sight. A long beak that strikes fear in the heart of earthworms does nothing to improve the picture. The end result is a bit like one of those Smart Cars you see on the road; it's distinctively odd in an endearing kind of way.

No wonder, then, that the woodcock also is known affectionately as the "Timberdoodle." And apparently it's not just the judgmental eye of the human that finds it a bit strange. The female of the species is so unimpressed by her male counterpart's visage that she requires him to perform one of nature's more spectacular mating dances in order to get any action. It makes Tom Sawyer's attempt to show off for Becky Thatcher by tight-roping a fence seem tame indeed.

Spring is the time of the Timberdoodle's sky dance, as it's known. Aldo Leopold - author and revered figure in the world of conservation - describes the sky dance in his book "A Sand County Almanac," which was published in 1949, not long after his death:

"He flies in low from some neighboring thicket, alights on the bare moss, and at once begins the overture: a series of queer throaty peents spaced about two seconds apart, and sounding much like the summer call of the nighthawk.

"Suddenly the peenting ceases and the bird flutters skyward 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 spec 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."

The Timberdoodle has been declining in numbers since at least the 1960s - in our region at a rate of about 1.9 percent per year. In raw numbers, that means that there are an estimated 829,000 fewer male woodcocks than there were in the early 1970s. This decline is attributed to dwindling habitat. Our propensity for building and paving, in combination with an increasing public distaste for clearcuts that create early successional openings in the forest, has left the Woodcock with fewer stages on which to perform.

In response, the Woodcock Task Force, working in concert with other agencies, in 2008 created the American Woodcock Conservation Plan. The goal of the plan is pretty straightforward: to increase the kind of habitat that fosters the American Woodcock through management techniques and land conservation.

In the foreword to "A Sand County Almanac," Leopold lamented, "Conservation is getting nowhere because it is incompatible with our Abrahamic concept of land. We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect."

While Leopold's lofty ideal may not yet be realized, I believe that today, more than 60 years later, conservation is getting somewhere. There exists a community of people who value land beyond its commodity value, and through initiatives like the American Woodcock Conservation Plan, we are making progress to protect the natural world in which we live.

Aldo Leopold and the sky dance of the American woodcock are also the subjects of "Something Wild" on New Hampshire Public Radio this week. Visit http://tinyurl.com/bmnnj94 to listen. There's also a terrific story about the bird and its habitat in Northern Woodlands magazine; it can be read online at www.northernwoodlands.org. A quick search on YouTube will bring you to videos of the Timberdoodle's skydance. No word on whether he'll make it on "America's Got Talent."

Jack Savage is the editor of Forest Notes: New Hampshire's Conservation Magazine, published by the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. Email him at jsavage@forestsociety.org.

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