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Blane Klemek: The American woodcock is an interesting species

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The behavior of animals is fascinating to watch. It is one of the primary reasons we enjoy observing wildlife so much. Certainly, the vivid plumage of many species of male birds and the spectacle of large flocks of migrants is another reason, but we all enjoy seeing what an animal does and, for many of us, digging deeper to understand why they do it.

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By the end of the month of March the migratory American woodcock arrives from their wintering grounds to Minnesota’s woodlands. These odd looking birds are actually shorebirds, but inhabit forests instead of wetlands, lakes and other riparian habitats.  

When the male woodcock arrives here in the northland, they search for locations for their “singing grounds.”  Typically, these sites include a component of young aspen and forest openings. Cut-overs (recently logged areas) or small fields next to prime cover are often where woodcock can be found.

Right now male woodcock are performing twice daily — early in the morning and late in the evening — for your listening and viewing pleasure. Of course the birds are actually performing for female woodcock and as a display for other males in the vicinity to stay away. But mostly it’s about courtship, and the way they go about it is worth the show.

Beginning everyday during the breeding season for about thirty minutes to an hour at dawn and dusk, the performance is both musical and spectacular. The male starts by “peenting,” as it’s called, from the ground, which is a nasal sounding vocalization produced from its throat. After numerous peents, the male abruptly departs into the sky above. Special primary wing feathers produce a twittering noise as the male woodcock’s flight carries him some 100 to 300 feet above his singing ground.

At the apex of the flight, he begins a corkscrew descent, creating a wonderfully musical bubbly, chirping and warbling song until, just moments before alighting back to the ground, he quits and glides to nearly the very spot he took off from. Almost immediately he begins his series of peents again. The flight, lasting about a minute, is repeated continuously until full daylight or darkness overcomes the woodland.

The common snipe, another migratory shorebird, performs aerial displays, too. Just a few days ago I watched four males perform their aerial feats. Over and over I watched in amazement as each snipe dove dozens of feet while simultaneously producing their rapid ascending musical sounds. While many people assume it’s their wings that make the sounds, the fact of the matter is the sound is produced from their tail feathers. Called “winnowing”, male snipe do what the woodcock does in the spring; they performing their own unique courtship display.

Other avian performers, male ruffed grouse, are presently “drumming” in forests everywhere. Though these birds will often drum in the fall, the activity really picks up during the spring breeding season. With drumming generally beginning in March and peaking in April to May, the male ruffed grouse generates the loud and thumping sound by beating his wings against the air. He chooses a secluded spot in dense thickets, always on top of a fallen log or stump and, while standing erect and using his fanned-out tail as support, extends his wings and beats hard against the air, slowly and deliberately at first, and culminating with a rapid series of wing-beats followed by a resting period.

Sharp-tailed grouse is yet another avian performer. Many sites throughout northwestern and northeastern Minnesota provide ideal habitat for these “prairie” grouse. Gathering on traditional dancing grounds, or “leks” as they are also called, male sharptails dance for breeding rights as they display, court, and even fight with other males from time to time. Like windup toys, the courting males will perform their amazing acts by vibrating the earth with rapidly stamping feet, heads pointing downward, and their wings extended to the sides. All of this, in addition to their clucks, coos, and cackles, just to impress the ladies.

Another “prairie” grouse is the greater prairie chicken. Pioneers had observed countless numbers of both prairie chickens and sharp-tailed grouse on the expansive grasslands of the Great Plains long ago. Like sharp-tails, prairie chickens gather in large groups on their traditional “booming grounds.” Located in prairie habitats in Clay, Becker, Norman, Mahnomen, Polk, and a few other northwestern Minnesota counties, prairie chickens depend on grasslands for survival.

Booming grounds refer to the males’ incredible booming sounds created from inflating their bright yellow-orange air sacs on the sides of their necks. The hoots and moans sound eerie and, like sharpies, the performances are generally conducted at dawn to attract hens. Males erect special neck feathers, called pinnae, during their foot stamping musical courtship displays.

And yet another well-recognized avian courtship display is what male wild turkeys performs each spring — the puffed out feathers, the fanned out tail, and the gobbling and drumming vocalizations — all serve a unique purpose. During the spring breeding season adult male turkeys compete with other males for the attention of hens. Male turkeys, also called gobblers or toms, establish “strutting zones” and will aggressively defend these areas from other toms. Though a true woodland bird, during the mating season these displays are performed where they can be easily seen, such as forest openings, field edges, and along trails.

Indeed, there are lots of opportunities to observe wildlife of all kinds performing courtship displays — especially birds. From waterfowl to grouse to songbirds and more, springtime is the best time as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

BLANE KLEMEK is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@ yahoo.com.

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