(This column was first published in the April 7, 2003 issue of The Buffalo News.)
April is the month of the timberdoodle.
One of the finest traditions of natural history is the annual April evening visit to its haunts to watch the flight and listen to the flight song of the timberdoodle -- a gamebird more formally known as the American woodcock.
Despite serious woodcock population declines in recent years, due more to loss of habitat than hunting pressure, this delightful bird remains rather common in this region. It is so rarely seen simply because of its shy and reclusive habits -- except, that is, in April.
Near where I live there is perfect timberdoodle habitat: an extensive, damp and brush-filled meadow adjacent to a woodland. On several evenings each April I go there shortly after dark to witness their delightful exhibition. The best time of the month is when the moon is out and nearly full. On those nights the woodcock sometimes continues his flights through the night. (This year the moon will be full on April 16.)
As light diminishes, I first hear a few high-pitched buzzy peent calls from the undergrowth. This continues for several minutes. Then suddenly a dark ball shoots up from the bushes, circling upward over 200 feet, twittering as it flies. When I can barely see it as a dot in the sky, it starts a circling, zigzagging descent. As it returns to its original take-off point, the timberdoodle calls over and over again a loud but musical three part song: chicharee, chicharee, chicharee.
If I have watched carefully where the woodcock took off, I can sometimes rush up to a position near that spot. Then when the bird returns, I can look for it in the beam of my flashlight. So intent is the bird strutting around and emitting those Bronx cheer-like peent calls to impress his mate that he seems oblivious to my light. I seldom see the female, so well camouflaged and hidden she remains. In fact she may already be brooding her four eggs. But the male alone provides me much pleasure. Especially noticeable as he cavorts with his odd dance are his bulging eyes.
The American woodcock is a truly unique member of our local fauna. It is a shorebird relative of the killdeer and the spotted sandpiper, but it looks nothing like either of them. And it is a small game bird, bigger than a bob-white but only a quarter of the size of a grouse.
It comes closest to being spherical of any bird I know. It has no neck, its head a mere bump on the sphere, its tail so short it's hardly noticeable. Except when it is dancing, you won't notice its legs either: it appears to rest on the ground.
The only thing protruding from this brown ball is an extremely long bill, almost half the length of its body. This bill has a distinctive feature that it shares with snipe. Its end is both pliable and extremely sensitive. It is used to probe for and grasp earthworms which constitute two-thirds of its diet. Woodcocks have been known to eat their weight in worms in a day. The remainder of their diet is insects, other arthropods and a few plant seeds.
I'm not a hunter but I unarmed once joined two of my wife's cousins on a woodcock shoot in Alabama. Mistake. Their dog put up a bird which flew past us. As the guns trained around toward me I hit the dirt. Fortunately neither the bird nor I were hit by the two shotgun blasts. The cousins apologized profusely and I stuck it out but I've not joined them since.-- Gerry Rising