The Timberdoodle, A Dancer Before the Stars by Jeff Cantrell

A Naturalist Voice

The event has been described in naturalists’ circles as the “Sky Dance”.  The fans of the book The Sand County Almanac are very familiar with it. I have enjoyed the avian flight dance for decades and now look forward to the weeks of performance running most every late winter day on my own property.  The stage is set along my resident nature trail and long driveway snaking through native grass lots, young forest and shrubby fields.   The “stage curtain” rises as the sun retires and I find myself on edge waiting for the first player to come out.   I have known colleagues who have rushed home from work to catch a television show or sports event, clearly I understand their anticipation.  Now every February and March I’m going home, work can wait, the sky dance is premiering.

The contestants are the American Woodcocks and often we Ozarkers know them as “Timberdoodles”.  They are related to the graceful shorebirds of this country’s beaches and mudflats.  Perhaps the timberdoodle is the awkward shorebird cousin, for when I mention to beginning birders the woodcock is “gnome-like”, I get nods and smiles from the baffled birdwatchers.

Twilight brings the performance of the males and it is both visual and auditory.  The nasal “peent” call is the icebreaker.  The call is given from the males at ground level.  The first famous flight display of the evening is a wide circular flight against a backdrop of sunset pastels.  The timberdoodles go higher and higher; the whole time the wings quiver and make a twittering sound.   The most engaging part of the night show is there are sky circles taking place everywhere!  Perhaps at the peak of height, around 300 ft. the twittering jingle stops and a flight song accompanies a zig zag flight to the ground.  If the gnome remark created a sparkle in the eyes of a beginning birder, you should see the expression when I mention the song resembles the sound of kisses on my face from my great aunts in my youth.  If you have that sort of extended family in your childhood, I guarantee you will recognize the sound. The cycle of peenting, display flights and songs continue well into the darkness and sometimes have a short encore at the break of dawn.  It is the type of show in natural history that entwines the fabric of our personality to the outdoors.

We who appreciate nature seek these adventures and want to share them.   We recognize the naturalist bond in every thread of our experience.  I could not agree more with my champion Aldo Leopold who wrote about the drama of the sky dance and my mentor Dr. Janice S. Greene (MSU Biology Dept.) who first introduced me to his writings and observations.  I encourage everyone to grab a youth, friend, or even an aunt and seek out the timberdoodle’s gift to our outdoor experience.

Jeff Cantrell is a local biologist and educator in SW Missouri, adjunct professor at MSU and proud member of the Aldo Leopold Foundation.  Jeff can be reached at coyoteteacher2@gmail.com.

Photography by Becky Wylie