Thursday, June 20, 2024

A woodcock spotted in Canada in 2016. (Photo: Foxman via Flickr)

For a city that in 2020 was the ninth-most densely settled in the United States, Cambridge is home to a surprising abundance of wildlife. Ask the drivers mixing it up with the turkeys in Harvard Square, or the joggers tiptoeing past a territorial goose. We also have one true urban wild, the Alewife reserve.

On a day last week that I discovered, belatedly, was too cold to be out jogging, I encountered a young couple setting up telephoto cameras not far from the Alewife T station. “What’s going on?” I asked.

“Nothing yet,” the woman answered. “But yesterday at dusk the woodcocks were doing their dance.”

“No kidding!”

I knew Alewife had a population of woodcocks, but I’d never seen the mating display Aldo Leopold describe in “A Sand County Almanac”:

Up and up he goes, the spirals steeper and smaller, the twittering louder and louder, until the performer is only a speck in the sky. Then, without warning, he tumbles like a crippled plane, giving voice in a soft liquid warble … At a few feet from the ground he levels off and returns to his peenting ground, usually to the exact spot where the performance began, and there resumes his peenting.

I pictured aerial acrobatics on a majestic scale – something like the flight of the Navy’s Blue Angels. Culminating in … peenting. Whatever that was. I’m always a sucker for an unfamiliar word, a new experience.

It seemed so unlikely that this extravagant display would happen here, in earshot of the busy traffic on Route 2 and the thousands of bikers, walkers, bus and T riders who pass by this spot, next to a graffiti-tagged cement waterworks. Would any bird see this as a spot for romance?

On the other hand, this was a flat open meadow, and Leopold had written that the male woodcock is “a stickler for a bare dance floor … The woodcock’s legs are short, and his struttings cannot be executed to advantage in dense grass or weeds.”

I had to stay and find out. So, shivering, I waited for the last light to drain from the sky.

Meanwhile I googled the woodcock (hmm … a dangerous phrase!). Cousin to the sandpiper, woodcocks are known for their unlikely beaks – 3 inches long on an 8 inch body! – equipped with the sensory acuteness to root around in the soil for earthworms by touch and smell. Their plumage is russet and white, highly adapted for woodland camouflage.

They hold the record for slowest flyer in the animal kingdom, at 5 miles per hour, though they’re capable of quick action. In the mating dance their feathers whistle in flight like those of a dove. And, being ground-dwelling birds who spend much of their day with their long beaks feeling around the undersoil, their eyes have evolved an unusual placement, above and behind their ears! This gives them 360 degree panoramic vision. You’re not going to sneak up on a woodcock.

Except, perhaps, during their mating dance, when they really don’t seem to be put off by anything. I’m hopping from foot to foot to stay warm whole curious talkative families have gathered to watch, the photographers have their lenses trained like bazookas, rush hour traffic is growling by and one photographer has gone so far as to lay on his belly with his camera on a sniper’s mount only feet from what must be the peenting ground –

And yet the birds, improbably, come.

Only I can barely see them. Dusk is so deep by now that, stare as I might, I can’t make out what’s happening on the ground. I see the photographers aim and, like magic, their enormous lenses pull in light and their multi-megapixel sensors resolve it: On their screens a woodcock appears, mid-waddle, slightly blurry from motion.

That’s the other thing about woodcocks. They’re always in motion. We’ve all seen pigeons bobbing their heads as they walk. Woodcocks do the same – only they pump their necks twice as much. And it’s in motion that I finally see the woodcock. The sky still holds light though the ground is dark, and by following the sound of the woodcock’s warbling, chuckling wing-whistle I catch, several times, the “tumbling like a crippled plane” part of its dance.

And a second later, a sound unlike any I’ve heard before. The peent. A flat, nasal noise that sounds, if anything, peeved. It’s not at all what I was imagining. It’s not musical. It’s not anything you’d think would impress the lady woodcock. It sounds as if the woodcock has witnessed an unfunny comedian, or a shortstop whiffing an easy pop fly, and is blowing the bird version of a raspberry.

Peent.

Let’s just hope it doesn’t interfere with the mating ritual, this unpretty sound, and diminish the forming of the next generation of woodcocks. I’d hate to lose this bit of magic, this improbable dance of the wild, from this meadow, this last bit of Great Swamp, Cambridge’s most natural park.

I am thoughtful, though, as I jog shiveringly away. A friend I’ve told about this sighting has supplied other names for the woodcock. It’s also known as the Timberdoodle. The Hokumpoke. The Bogsucker.

With the sound it makes, these sound like the names to use.

No one’s going to mistake the Timberdoodle for the Blue Angels. But he just might make you laugh.

Peent.


Greg Harris is the founding editor of the literary magazine Pangyrus and the founder and co-director of Harvard LITfest. His essays, reviews, and stories have appeared in The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Harvard Review, Jewish Fiction, Earth Island Journal and elsewhere.