The Skydancer

The American woodcock is a plump, short-legged bird of the sandpiper family – a shore bird that doesn't spend time at the beach! It is about the size of a quail, with rounded wings, a short tail, a short, thick neck, and a very long, straight bill.
The woodcock's plumage has cryptic coloration, that is, it has a mottled pattern of rusty browns and grays that affords the bird good camouflage as it crouches during the day amidst fallen leaves. Male, female and fully feathered juvenile birds are all similar in appearance.
The woodcock is a crepuscular creature, that is, most of its feeding takes place at dawn or dusk. Its diet consists primarily of earthworms and insect larvae. The bird has a special adaptation to capture its prey. There are nerve endings in the lower third of its bill with which it can "feel" earthworms in the mud. Then, it can lift just the tip of the upper bill and seize the hapless worm! The underside of the upper bill and the tongue are rough and the slippery prey can be dragged out. The bill is thus both a probe and a forceps!
The woodcock's large, dark protruding eyes are set so high and so far back that it has overlapping fields of vision both in front and in back of its head. The woodcock can see above, behind and to the sides, as well as forward, while he is probing the mud for food, so that he can be aware of any predator intending to make a meal of him!
We find woodcock inhabiting the edge of forests bordering moist meadows. They rest during the day, depending on their cryptically-colored plumage to conceal them. If one approaches them too closely, they shoot up explosively, their wings making a distinctive whistling sound.
The American woodcock is famous for its spectacular courtship "song flights" that occur in spring over the breeding grounds. These displays take place at dusk when the owls call, throughout moonlit nights, and at dawn.
At first, the male struts about in a clearing, calling a very soft "cook-ooo." Then, he begins to utter a repetitive, nasal "preent." He takes to the air, and in so doing, produces the whistling sound with his flight feathers. By a series of spiraling loops, he ascends to two or three hundred feet, and is sometimes lost to the observer in the dim light. Suddenly, he plummets earthward in a looping, slanting descent, singing "zleep, zleep" as he flies, and landing very near to where he took off!
(Since woodcock don't possess gaudy feathers, they have developed the aerial displays to attract the attention and capture the approval of female birds.)
If the courtship display is pleasing to a female waiting nearby, the birds will mate, then, the hen will go forth to raise her family alone. Her nest is merely a slight depression she has scraped in the leaf litter on the ground, lined with grasses or pine needles and rimmed with twigs. Each day, she lays one buff-colored egg, decorated with light brown blotches and overlaid with darker brown markings. There are usually four eggs in all. She doesn't begin to incubate them till all are laid; that way, all will hatch at about the same time. When the hen is sitting on her eggs, she sometimes falls into a "brooding trance" and can actually be stroked by one who comes upon her!
After three weeks, the downy woodcock chicks hatch out, alert and with open eyes. Soon after hatching, they can follow their mother or crouch motionless at the approach of danger. In only two weeks, they can fly, and in four weeks, they are almost fully grown!
The American woodcock ranges in Eastern North America from Southern Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, however, the winters must be spent in the southern part of its range, for it must have unfrozen ground to probe for its food. When the days grows shorter, woodcock assemble in loose flocks for their annual migration.
Unfortunately, woodcock are heavily hunted game birds, prized for their flesh. Ed Sanders wrote in his biography of Chekhov in verse of an incident that took place when Chekhov and his friend Levitan went hunting woodcock:

Levitan shot at a bird 
                           which fell wounded 
                                                 by his feet 
                               
"It had a long beak, large dark eyes, 
and fine plumage."
                               
It looked at the painter and writer 
                                    with astonishment 
                               
Levitan closed his eyes 
                      and begged Doctor Chekhov, 
                               
"Kill it."
                               
"I can't." 
                               
The bird continued its stunned stare. 
Finally Chekhov killed it.
"One lovely, amorous creature less,"
                                                    he wrote, 
"and two imbeciles went back home 
                              and sat down to table." 


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