Signs of Spring Everywhere Signs of Spring Everywhere
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Signs of Spring Update: February 15, 1999

Today's Report Includes:

Groundhog and Woodcocks Predict Early Spring.

Woodcock photo courtesy of the Patuxent Bird Identification Infocenter

Punxatawney Phil didn't see his shadow on Groundhog's Day this year, so tradition holds that we're in for an early spring. And people in Missouri have another early sign--American Woodcocks are already doing their evening "skydance" display.

Male woodcocks (nicknamed "timberdoodles") have a beautiful mating display. They do their dance in clearings near the edges of woods on early spring evenings and mornings before dawn. Woodcocks are found in the eastern U.S. States and the extreme southeastern Canadian provinces.

Listen to the Woodcock's Beep
Wait for download; 69 K file.
Recording Courtesy of
Lang Elliott

When it's just barely light enough to see shadows of distant trees, male woodcocks come out into the open to make their little beeping sounds on the ground (biologists call this "peenting"). Suddenly one takes off, flying in an upward spiral, its wings making a lovely chittering sound as he climbs so high that he's no more than a speck in the sky. At the top, he chirps like a canary as he flies in a circle, and then he tumbles to the ground like a fallen leaf and starts beeping again.

Listen to a Woodcock's Entire Skydance
Wait for download; 691 K file.
Recording Courtesy of
Lang Elliott

Aldo Leopold wrote an essay about the skydance in his most famous work, "A Sand County Almanac," explaining why woodcock choose a bare spot for this display: "Why the male woodcock should be such a stickler for a bare dance floor puzzled me at first, but I now think it is a matter of legs. The woodcock's legs are short, and his struttings cannot be executed to advantage in dense grass or weeds, nor could his lady see them there. I have more woodcocks than most farmers because I have more mossy sand, too poor to support grass."

Leopold noted that woodcock only perform this display at low light levels, "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."

Woodcocks have an exquisitely designed beak which allows them to eat enormous quantities of earthworms. The tip of the bill senses earthworms by touch and even smell. The bill is long enough to reach worms more than two inches down in the soil, and when it encounters a worm the bill can remain closed, with just the tip opening to grasp the worm without also getting a mouthful of mud.

Learn more about Aldo Leopold and his book, A Sand County Almanac.

Discussion of Challenge Question # 1:
We said that hawks, owls, and crows nest very early in the year and asked: Why do you suppose they court and start building nests when it's still winter?

Red-tailed Hawk photo courtesy of the Patuxent Bird Identification Infocenter

As Mr. Brown's "Firgrove Naturalists" noted, sticks are easy to find and break in winter so big birds can use them for nest building. And there are a couple of things that may be even more important.

Mr. Upton's 7th graders and Mrs. Zerhusen's 3rd graders both thought about incubation time. Bretton said, "I think the eggs of the hawk, owl and crow may take longer to hatch then other birds. So they start early so their eggs will hatch on time."

Ms. Thurber's 5th graders and the Firgrove Naturalists thought it had to do with food. Rebecca from Mrs. Zerhusen's 3rd grade explained, "It's like a hotel, when you sign up first you get the best room or in a restaurant when you get a good table!" That "good table" is exactly what those baby predators need. Their parents feed them a lot of birds and mammals, and when they get big enough to start hunting on their own, there will still be lots of inexperienced baby birds and mammals around for them to practice on.

How to Respond to Today's Challenge Question
1.Address an e-mail message to:
2. In the Subject Line of your message write: Challenge Question # 3
3. In the body of your message, answer the question.

The Next Signs of Spring Update Will be Posted on March 1, 1999

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