Words on the Woodcock

Sky Dance of the Woodcock

The first woodcock I ever saw came trundling out from under a thornapple shrub in a brushy field. It sat there. I couldn’t identify it. I wondered at its plump shape and big head, long tapered bill, the browns and ochres and grays that fretted its plumage. The bird was a marvel to see.

Sky Dance of the Woodcock, by Greg Hoch, is a marvel to read. Subtitled The Habits and Habitats of a Strange Little Bird, the book includes eight chapters, each a well-crafted, informative essay: “Anatomy and Behaviors,” “Sky Dance” (describing the male’s beautiful springtime courtship flights), “Habitats,” “Historic Hunting and Modern Threats,” “Studying Woodcock,” “Migration” and more.

Hoch is a biologist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources with a deep understanding of the young-forest habitat required by woodcock, ruffed grouse, golden-winged warblers and scores of other wild animals. His book blends science, history and folklore. Don’t get it if you want another how-to on hunting “timberdoodles” or choosing a bird gun. Do get it if you want to learn about one of the most fascinating birds in North America.

Hoch poses—and answers—intriguing and sometimes whimsical questions: Can the woodcock dance the rumba? Can it balance chicks on its back or clasp them between its legs while flying? What effect does the buildup of pesticides and lead isotopes (from lead shot) have on the health of woodcock? How can we best manage landscapes to ensure that the species thrives?

Sky Dance of the Woodcock is a beautifully designed, high-quality paperback. It’s fascinating and delightful, like the reclusive bird it describes. The 196-page book is available for $30 from the University of Iowa Press.

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