Leopold’s ‘Sky Dance’ essay inspires family tradition
“The drama of the sky dance is enacted nightly on hundreds of farms, the owners of which sigh for entertainment, but harbor the illusion that it is to be sought in theaters. They live on the land, but not by the land.” – Aldo Leopold.
We never saw him enter the singing ground. Arriving undetected, a nasal “peent” is what gave him away. It was my 7-year-old son who heard the male woodcock first.
“Suddenly the peenting ceases and the bird flutters skyward in a series of wide spirals, emitting a musical twitter. 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 that a March bluebird might envy.”
The woodcock danced for us twice before it flew into a mist net set strategically in its flight path. Together, we ran to the net from our hiding place in the brush, and while I slowly untangled the bird from the nylon netting, my young son watched intently.
Once freed, a small aluminum band was placed on his leg, followed by measurements of its beak and outer primary feathers. As I finished the necessary banding duties, young No. 1 son patiently waited by my side, knowing the best was yet to come. Cradled in his hands, he gently kissed the bird’s forehead, pointed it away from the net and released it into the twilight.
“To band a bird is to hold a ticket in a great lottery.”
That was more than 25 years ago. In the early ’70s, as a freshman natural resources student at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (UWSP), I was introduced to “A Sand County Almanac.” I didn’t realize it at the time, but several of Aldo Leopold’s essays would influence my life forever.
Not one to read books from cover to cover, I skipped right to the October chapter and followed the author and his bird dog from “one red lantern to another.” I learned, “There are two kinds of hunting: ordinary hunting, and ruffed grouse hunting” and after reflecting on his description of a good partridge dog, I was hooked.
Turning back to the Almanac’s spring passages, I zeroed in on Leopold’s description of the American woodcock’s “Sky Dance.” The essay eloquently described the courtship display, and left this reader with several unanswered questions.
How long does the male display during the nesting period? Is the male’s musical twitter in flight vocal, or mechanical? Are the males polygamists? If there’s two birds on the singing ground, is the second a female, or a rival male? Leopold’s habit of asking his readers questions, worked on me. The spell was cast.
These questions and a need to know more led me on a lifetime love affair with the bird and the natural world it inhabited. After graduating, I began a career in water resources, freelance writing and raising bird dogs. I joined several conservation organizations, volunteered to run woodcock singing-ground surveys and obtained my federal bird-banding license with the sole purpose of banding woodcock.
Mist netting male woodcock on their singing grounds and capturing hens and their chicks with pointing dogs transported me into a world few people know – and in the process, discovered the bird’s world and mine weren’t very far apart. In the field behind our house, males and females were courting each spring. In early May, hens walked their chicks within a stone’s throw of our bird dog kennels. Each fall, at dusk, birds flew above the alders bordering the edge of our woods. The sky dancer was helping me “live by the land.”
Last weekend No. 2 son heard the first male of the year singing and displaying on our prairie grass field. After all these years, our family still listens for and bands woodcock along the creek – a family affair inspired by Leopold’s Sky Dance essay.
Editor’s note: Quotes from Aldo Leopold’s “A Sand County Almanac.”