Dancing on our Lathrop Land

by Barbara Walvoord

from Lathrop Lamp Post, April 6, 2017

American Woodcocks are small, brown, woodland birds that you very rarely see.  They hang out in shrublands, old fields, and young forests, quiet and shy, superbly camouflaged against the leaf litter, walking slowly along the forest floor, probing the soil with their long bills in search of worms and insects.

Except now, when the courting males put on quite a show.  East campus residents have heard them behind Huckleberry and Mulberry.  You can find them in wood openings and fields at dawn or dusk.  Listen for their buzzing “peent” sound, and the whir of their wings as the males leap straight up into the air.  Hear them at https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/American_Woodcock/sounds

The male puts on a  dazzling, high-energy, aerial display, sky-dancing to impress the ladies, and mating with as many of them as possible.  After this spectacular show of ardor, however, the guys take no responsibility for egg incubation or child-rearing.

The female, left to her own devices, makes motherhood as little work as possible.  She does not build a nest, but just makes a small hollow in some grasses and lays her eggs. If this “nest” is disturbed early in the incubation period, she readily abandons it, though as incubation proceeds, she seems to get into it a bit more, and may feign injury to distract predators away from the eggs.

After about 20 days, the hatchlings emerge, already with sight and feathers.   Just a few hours after hatching, they leave the nest, and within 3-4 days, they are pecking at the ground for insects and worms. Mom will feed them for a week, but then she leaves, and the kids are on their own.

But the dancing continues.  As woodcocks feed on the ground, they do a different dance–rocking their bodies back and forth, shifting their weight heavily from foot to foot, like a country bumpkin at a seventh-grade dance.  The vibrations from this dancing apparently prompt earthworms to move underground, so the woodcocks can hear or feel them.  The birds probe the soil with their long bills, which have flexible upper mandibles specialized for capturing and extracting earthworms, their primary food, as well as spiders, ants, beetles, millipedes, and other delicious morsels.

So the quiet, solitary little woodcocks spend their lives dancing on our Lathrop land.

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