Telling the Seasons by a Woodcock Clock Everyone has a favorite harbinger of spring. Commentator Julie Zickefoose nominates a pudgy, brown bird with big brown eyes and an over-sized bill.
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Telling the Seasons by a Woodcock Clock

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Telling the Seasons by a Woodcock Clock

Telling the Seasons by a Woodcock Clock

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Well, this is the first full day of spring and everyone has a favorite harbinger of the season. Commentator Julie Zickefoose nominates a pudgy brown bird with big brown eyes and an over-sized bill.

JULIE ZICKEFOOSE: It's a little after 6:00 a.m., an early March morning. I lie in bed still but awake, waiting for a sound to filter through the darkness and closed windows. Finally, a nasal, burry…

(Soundbite of woodcock chirping)

ZICKEFOOSE: …then another. The woodcock is singing. It's a fat cinnamon-brown bird, a snite actually with short pink legs, a three-inch bill stuck like a pencil into its face, huge annex eyes. It's a bird of the night, probing the mud for earthworms while we sleep. Most of us have never seen it. Some people wait for robins to herald spring. I wait for the woodcock. In early March with barest scent of maple flowers on the air, I listen for it at dusk. By the official first day of spring, woodcock's everywhere east of the Mississippi or dancing like crazy - right now.

The woodcock's simple call is among the most evocative signs of the season of light and life, leaf and love. Perhaps it's because it lays out its desires when few other birds are really ready to mate. Morning doves are beginning to sit alone on roadside wires, pumping out their forlorn advertisements. Cardinals break the dawn with lusty whistles. They've been here all winter and is no big effort to send out a song now and then. But the woodcock is buying in big, migrating from the deep south, daring March and April snow storms, risking it all to send out a message, each call a candy Valentine.

I'm yours, be mine, hachacha(ph). After 10, 20, 50 (unintelligible) calls, the little bird crouches then springs into the air. Special flight feathers make a twittering sound as it climbs toward the evening stars. It flutters bat-like in a wide circle over instancing ground. In the slowest powered flight of any North American bird, it creeps across the twilight sky like a sycamore leaf barely held aloft, 300 feet above the ground. Suddenly, it sideslips and sideslips again, a leaf in the wind falling to the earth, and it begins to sing.

It's quicksilver, a staccato rush of notes with an overlying fugue of wing twitters that accelerate as the bird does, painting an oral picture of ecstasy and desire. It's falling in love. The song abruptly ceases, and the bird lands in the dry grass with a soft plump, like a grapefruit tossed into the weeds. It pauses then explodes with a peent. Soon, it lifts into the air and begins its dance again. Find an old grown up pasture somewhere in the eastern half of the country, bring binoculars and listen for the woodcock.

Just when day turns to evening, the woodcock begins to call. When it lifts off in its spiral flight, scuttle closer to the spot it just left. Sit quietly and hope it comes down nearby this time. Try not to giggle as it struts about, giving a call that sounds like an accident. Lift your face to the sky and listen as it climbs, circles, and falls, a warm brown cantaloupe on wings, singing like a nightingale.

This show, that could so easily pass without notice, that is free for the watching, that moves the soul and catches the breath, is going on at dawn and dusk whether we listen or not.

We have only to put on our shoes and seek it out to set our inner clocks to the true first day of spring, the day the woodcock dances.

(Soundbite of woodcock chirping)

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: Commentator Julie Zickefoose can be found on many spring evenings in the meadow, behind her house near Whipple, Ohio.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: I'm Michele Norris.

SIEGEL: I'm Robert Siegel. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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