A bluejay squawked from the tree line, giving me pause before entering the barn. As I scanned the woods for flashes of blue and white, a pair of chickadees flitted past, landing in the vineyard. Further in the distance, a pileated woodpecker hammered away… I will pause almost any job to watch or listen to almost any bird, and I never regret the distractions or the lost work time.
Back on track, walked inside the barn where I opened and closed a toolbox drawer, startling a cat that had been hiding in the back room. We see each other around the farm frequently, and share a mutual dislike for one another. I do not know why the cat dislikes me. Perhaps he senses how I feel about him. It is not personal. I dislike all house cats. Inside, they trigger my allergies. Outside, they kill songbirds.
In fact, a recent Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute study found free-ranging domestic cats to be the killers of 1.3–4.0 billion birds annually, the majority of which are natives. And a National Geographic article last year called house cat “the greatest source of human-related bird mortality in the country.”
As the barn cat streaked past me and out the door I offered a toothless warning in the form of a hiss. As usual, he did not stop to converse.
The pruning shears I had been hunting in the barn remained AWOL, so during my afternoon farmers market run I stopped in the hardware store for new ones. On my way through the store I thought about the cat, and checked out the live traps. I have trapped cats before. It isn’t difficult. But once you have them, you have to do something with them. Neutering and releasing doesn’t solve the predation problem, and feral cats are not viable candidates for adoption. As I see it, that leaves two options: Let them live and continue their bird-killing ways… or not.
I left the traps, bought my shears, and headed home. The sun was setting and the western sky awash with bold pinkish orange when I topped the mountain. It was dusk when I stopped the truck in front of the house.
* * *
The truck door was still open and I was leaning back inside, reaching for the milk cooler, when a sound caught my attention. Leaving the task at hand, I turned around and looked to the sky. I hear a lot of calls on the farm, but this was not one of the usual suspects.
That single peent, heard from inside the truck, might not have been much to go on, but it was distinct. My immediate thought (be it a fleeting one) was common nighthawk, but never had I heard a nighthawk in Georgia while wearing a heavy wool coat.
A second call confirmed that this was something different, something on the ground… and close by. Best I could tell, it was coming from just beyond the apple trees across the driveway.
Meep… Meep… Meep…
Aldo Leopold would have noted the exact time, the interval, and the number of calls, but I was too excited to think about checking my watch or counting.
As the calls kept coming, my certainty grew. It Couldn’t it be anything else, I thought… But it’s February. And I’m in Georgia…
Meep… Meep… Meep…
I continued to listen, trying to convince myself that this was anything other than the obvious–a tiny raspy tenor calling out his single notes, one after another, turning his body to send out the message in all directions, to all possible mates.
A pause of perhaps a minute left me listening intently, but coming up empty. Then a new sound brought irrefutable confirmation. Softly whistling wings lifted a stout, nearly tailless body over the trees. There was no mistaking it. An American woodcock flew directly over my head, barely high enough to clear the house behind me followed by a lasting silence.
An American woodcock!
* * *
I have watched birds my entire life, and there is not a single species I do not enjoy. A few of them, I have fallen in love with. My first family of Harris’ hawks who I watched hunting together like a wolf pack in the Arizona desert stole my heart instantly. I met my first American dipper at the bottom of Grand Canyon and was mesmerized by this strange little songbird who bobbed about in the stream before diving like a loon after insects. A lone Lewis’ woodpecker in Central California who looked so unlike any woodpecker I had ever seen that the spot on the map where I met her is ingrained in my memory. The first sandhill crane I encountered was on the Snake River in Wyoming–two adults and a colt. I challenge anybody to spend a few minutes with such a family in the wild and not be smitten. Winter wrens in Redwood National Park, shrikes and burrowing owls in Arizona, northern harriers and loggerhead shrikes in Georgia, nighthawks and kinglets in Tennessee… So many love affairs, all of which have easily outlived the longest of my human romances…
But only one bird have I fallen in love with before ever laying eyes or ears on her.
I was in my late teens when I first read A Sand County Almanac and discovered Aldo Leopold’s American woodcock. The annual sky dance, predictable enough to set his watch by, captured my imagination such that when I finally saw the ritual for the first time ten years later, I was at first convinced that I had seen it before.
The courtship ritual of the male woodcock is quite the spectacle. These short-legged shorebirds of the forest call out their meeps (Leopold called them peents) spaced about every two seconds, then take off, spiraling into the sky, the twittering of the wings growing ever louder as the spirals tighten until the bird is out of sight. But his is not the end, as if shot out of the sky, the birds practically fall back to the same spot to begin the ritual once more.
According to Leopold, “The show begins on the first warm evening in April at exactly 6:50 p.m. The curtain goes up exactly one minute later each day until 1 June. This sliding scale is dictated by vanity, the dancer demanding a romantic light intensity of exactly 0.05 foot-candles. Do not be late, and sit quietly, lest he fly away in a huff.”
I have no idea of the foot-candles of light on the farm that evening, but I have a hard time not believing in the romantic motivations of the woodcock. And hearing that call so unexpectedly, seeing the usually elusive bird not only in these parts, but at my front door, caused my heart to beat little harder and a little faster, and a delighted smile to cross my face.
It also made me a little bit lonely. Not because I longed for romance as I listened to his call for a mate, but because I wanted somebody–anybody–to see and be as delighted as I was. I wanted somebody else to experience such a magical moment. But when I called a friend later that evening, and then another, I could hear clearly in their voices that, as happy as they were for me, had either of those friends been there with me, they would have appreciated it, but their hearts would not have fluttered. This moment was mine, and in the end I was pleased to have been alone, and to have a quiet house to which I could return for a glass of scotch and a place to write.
Last night’s bird was not my first Georgia woodcock. I saw one last year on the next ridge over, but that was a silent bird, deep in the woods, huddled and camouflaged in leaf litter, far from any trail or open space.
I had previously experienced The sky dance and the accompanying meeps in several states north of Georgia from Maryland to Minnesota, and because the timing of those experiences fell pretty much in line with Leopold’s schedule, I had always assumed that there and then, and only there and then, is when the woodcock dances. After all, It is a mating thing, and that means spring, right?
So, when I moved from the Midwest to the South, I let yet another avian love affair become a long distance one. As with dippers, Lewis’ woodpeckers, and Harris’ Hawks, I would remember them fondly… and move on.
* * *
With the excitement of the woodcock over way too soon, I turned to the internet for some answers, and found a US Forest Service study stating that “Male American woodcocks begin displaying on wintering grounds sometimes as early as December when weather is warm, and continue displaying during spring migration and upon arrival on breeding grounds.”
I also found out that there are overlapping migrations and here, in Northwest Georgia, I am in the overlap where we can get them coming, going, or in some cases, hanging around year round.
But as is so often the case, this silver lining had a touch of gray. That USFS study also corroborated what I learned from National Geographic: A major predator of woodcocks, whose populations are declining in much of their habitat, is house cats.
This morning, on my walk to the vineyard I was thinking about the numbers: 1.3–4.0 billion birds annually, when I ran across several tufts of bluejay feathers just outside the greenhouse. There was no proof, but the story was easy to guess.
This evening I sat on the porch from sunset until dark and listened, but my woodcock did not return.
Tomorrow I will do some more work in the vineyard and once again I will be ready shortly after sunset to listen from the porch.
Without proof, I have no way of guessing if my woodcock was simply passing through, if he has a peenting ground he prefers to mine, or if he met an untimely demise.
Of course my hope is that he is off peenting on another stage, to another audience, and that one of these evenings he might drop back in for a visit. In the mean time, I will do my part to make the theater in the orchard as safe as possible for his return, and a little safer for the bluejays, too.
You can see the woodcock dancing and peenting, then hear it’s whistling flight as it takes off in this youtube video by Lang Elliott.