When my daughters were little, there was a toy on the market called Sky Dancers. It consisted of a small doll with foam wings.
When you placed the doll onto its base and pulled a string, the doll would launch, spinning into the air before “dancing” back down to earth. Unless, of course, you were my daughters — in which case you battled with them — magically transforming the spinning little angels and ballerinas into dangerous projectiles.
The toymakers developed an entire Sky Dancers pantheon and a spin-off cartoon series until reports started pouring in of injuries, including facial lacerations, scratched corneas and temporary blindness at the slashing wings of Sky Dancers, which in a few short years earned them a spot in another pantheon — one you could call the “Island of Dangerous and Recalled Toys.”
Although it is unlikely, perhaps the toy company could have been inspired by a real-life sky dancer, the American woodcock – which to the best of my knowledge has never lacerated or scratched anyone’s face or cornea.
The American woodcock is a bit of a paradox; it can be described as an upland game shorebird assembled from spare parts with legs borrowed from the Killdeer, the beak from the Kiwi and the coloration of a quail or grouse. It is not an attractive bird: its eyes are set high and far back on its head, which appears to sit directly on its body with no neck.
Its most identifiable feature is its long bill, which it uses to probe for its food — primarily earthworms. The tip of its upper bill is flexible allowing it to catch earthworms while it is sunk in the ground.
Also known by such aliases as the timberdoodle, Labrador twister, bogsucker, night partridge and brush snipe, the American woodcock is perhaps best known for the male’s unique courtship ritual, referred to as the air dance or sky dance.
Around dusk this time of year, starting around late February and continuing through early spring, the male woodcock engages in an elaborate dance to attract a mate. It starts at a spot called the singing grounds with a series of “peent” calls. He then launches into the air describing a wide spiral with his wings making a tweeting sound, goes as high as 250 feet and then settles back down with his wings making a chirping sound before landing where he first took off. He will repeat this process and begin “peenting” all over again before resuming the dance.
American woodcock are migratory birds. Ideal habitats include a mix of wet young forest and “old” fields. Courtship habitat includes forest cleanings and pastures, old fields and rights-of-way.
My first experience with the American woodcock was as a youngster in Louisiana, where the birds frequently spend the winter. The little birds would generally jump out from underneath my feet, in the explosive manner reminiscent of ruffed grouse or Bobwhite quail, fly a short distance and settle back to earth, at which point they would promptly disappear, blending perfectly into their environment thanks to their protective coloration.
The American woodcock is a game bird that hunters rarely hunt. Pioneering conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote, “No one would rather hunt woodcock in October than I, but since learning of the sky dance I find myself calling one or two birds enough. I must be sure that, come April, there be no dearth of dancers in the sunset sky.”
Although it is considered somewhat of a wildlife urban legend, many people have suggested or reporting seeing hen American woodcocks carrying their young, and there is some belief and documentation that its relative the Eurasian woodcock will occasionally carry its young. What is known is that the young birds develop very fast and leave the nest within a few hours after hatching.
So get out there and listen for the original Sky Dancer. No face or eye protection required.