Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Listeners' Favorite Birds: Paula's Timberdoodle

American Woodcock

The month of April virtually always comes in with an April Fools snowstorm. It hardly ever lasts, but reminds us that Mother Nature still holds the cards.

Much as I get tired of cold and wind and snow, April also means woodcocks, nicknamed timberdoodles. In years when we have an early spring and no serious bad spells, the birds leading the pack will get a jump on passing their genes on to the next generation. In late springs or when bad weather punishes early arrivals, the later migrants win the genetic pool contest.
I’m not the only one who loves woodcocks. Paula sent me this voicemail:
Hi, Laura. This is Paula in Lakewood, Ohio. My favorite early spring bird is the timberdoodle. I love everything about it--how it looks and sounds and especially the way it moves. It always makes me smile. It's spring when I see my first timberdoodle. 
Paula happens to be a friend of mine.

Laura, Pip, and Paula
Left to right: Me, Pip, and Paula
In 2011, she brought me to one of my favorite woodcock viewing spots ever. We weren’t there at dusk to see them dancing—it was midday. And we didn’t go to some secluded spot in wilderness, or even in suburbia—no, we were in downtown Cleveland, within visual and auditory range of the Cleveland baseball team’s ballpark.

Like many major cities, Cleveland is on a waterfront, meaning a lot of birds end up in the city during migration, and woodcocks are especially vulnerable to urban life—they’re killed in disproportionate numbers in collisions with towers and glass. But savvy woodcocks passing through the Cleveland area have found a refuge—the lovely Erie Street Cemetery.


This old cemetery was established in 1827. Its gothic gateway stands right across East 9th Street from Jacobs Field, and it’s surrounded by a 19th century iron fence. For some reason, woodcocks gather in the cemetery, especially where it’s easy to plunge their long bills into the soil for worms. We saw at least five or six when Paula brought me there on April 17, 2011. Their plumage is exquisitely designed as camouflage, and they spend April days resting and quietly feeding, so I’m sure we missed at least a few more.

American Woodcock

During early May, there’s a birding festival further west in Ohio called the Biggest Week in American Birding which I’ve attended on several occasions. Early May is precisely when female woodcocks are on eggs, and often one sharp-eyed birder or another will find one near the boardwalk at the Magee Marsh. Organizers rope off the area so birders can safely observe her without disrupting nesting. I don’t like walking off trails, especially in spring and summer—I’m petrified of the thought of stepping on a ground nest without even realizing it. So those opportunities at Magee Marsh have been the only times I’ve seen woodcocks on eggs.

Nesting American Woodcock

As thrilling as it is to see woodcocks in daytime like this, my greatest thrills come from hearing them perform their sky-dance at dusk. I’ve had fine opportunities to record their wonderful little beeps—when I’ve been close enough, I’ve even managed to capture some of the little hiccups that accompany beeps. But it’s hard to track the birds with a shotgun microphone when they take off and spiral up into the evening sky. Their wings make a lovely chittering sound, and at the top they start making chirpy kissing sounds as they drop like a falling leaf to the ground. Ryan Brady was already witnessing this in Washburn, Wisconsin, last week, so we should be seeing and hearing one of the finest rituals of spring in northern Minnesota anytime now.

However you see a connection between nature and God, sky-dancing woodcocks are definitely a gift from above. They deserve to be treasured.

Copyrighted Drawing by J. Zickefoose for the Macaulay Library and the Birds of North America Online

If you have a favorite bird you'd like to share, email a sound file to me at favoritebird@lauraerickson.com, or call and leave a voicemail message on Lisa Johnson's KUMD number's any day after 2 pm Central Time: 218-726-6755. Give your first name, and say what your favorite bird is and why. Recordings should run 15-30 seconds or so.

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