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Dancing in the Sky ~ Birds Take to the Air in March to Woo Their Mates

Feb 26, 2021 ● By SherylDeVore
Red-tailed Hawk

Photo by Vic Berardi

One of the most exciting things for raptor lovers to see in early spring is the courtship flight display of the red-tailed hawk, according to Vic Berardi, founder of the Illinois Beach State Park Hawkwatch, in Zion.

Berardi, of Gurnee, has watched red-tailed hawk pairs soar, dive and follow each other in the sky year-round, but especially when mating season arrives in March. Some might experience the hawks fly toward each other, interlock their outstretched talons and spin in a dizzying circle before releasing their talons. It’s the natural world’s version of Dancing with the Stars—and those living in the Chicago region can experience red-tailed hawks court in the sky by day, as well as the common birds called American woodcocks performing aerial displays at dusk.

“Red-tailed hawks remain paired throughout the year, and these displays can be seen even in fall,” says Berardi. “We’ve had a pair at Illinois Beach State Park that frequently put on a courtship display of diving and twisting hundreds of feet above ground.” The birds also give loud screams in the sky, alerting humans to their presence. Berardi says courtship displays can be observed in open areas around preserves, parks and even in urban settings.

Laurel Ross, research associate at The Field Museum, in Chicago, says she’s observed a pair of red-tailed hawks courting at Crab Tree Nature Center, in Palatine, this winter, and notes they had nested in a tree there in the past. She watched as the female and male took turns sitting in a tree next to one another and then one of them would fly off, daring the other to chase it. “They were frolicking. They were having a great time,” Ross says. “We watched for them to grasp talons, but we didn’t see that. It was like they were flirting with each other.” Ross planned to return to the center in March to watch more courtship displays and see if the hawks grasped talons as nesting season commences.

Red-tailed hawks have a fan-shaped tail in flight, which is red in adults, but not immature birds. Living year-round in the Chicago region, the red-tailed hawks court and build large, bulky stick nests or add material to old nests in deciduous trees in early spring. The female lays two to four brown, blotched eggs that hatch in about four weeks. Both sexes incubate the eggs and feed the young until they leave the nest in about six weeks. In summer and fall, we may see red-tailed hawk young screaming at their parents to feed them, even if they are capable of catching their own prey, which includes voles, mice, rabbits, chipmunks and snakes.

Another rite of spring for nature lovers is watching and listening to American woodcocks court in short, wet grasses next to woodlands and shrublands. Woodcocks belong to the shorebird family, but don’t spend their time walking down beaches or in mudflats like others of the family do. Instead, they hide in swampy woods, probing their long, sturdy, flexible bill into the soil, searching for worms and insect larvae. Those that get a view will see a somewhat comical bird with a large head, short neck, relatively short legs and rotund body. The eyes are placed far back on either side of the head to enable them to see a potential predator while they feed.

Woodcock numbers are declining overall in the U.S., according to, which works with biologists to improve habitat for the bird. Birders throughout the Chicago region have their favorite spots to watch woodcocks dance. Vernon LaVia, who has led birders and non-birders alike on woodcock walks, says a key spot for him is at Oakhurst Forest Preserve, in Aurora. “One year, a bird displayed for 90 days about 50 feet from the upper parking lot and pavilion,” he recalls. “Another bird was at the base of the large sledding hill.”

As the sun descends into the horizon, he and other woodcock watchers throughout the region listen for a nasal-sounding “Peent” from short grasses. That’s the male announcing his presence to nearby females. He’ll peent a few or many times before he takes to the sky, his wings making twittering noises as he spirals higher and higher until disappearing from view. Then he drifts down in a zig-zag pattern while making chirping noises before he lands, often right where he started. The male may perform the ritual once or several times often beginning about 20 minutes after sunset for about an hour and sometimes later on moonlit nights.

Often considered the father of conservation, Aldo Leopold, who lived in central Wisconsin, hunted woodcock in autumn, but soon found watching them perform was more satisfying. “I must be sure that come April, there be no dearth of dancers in the sunset sky,” he wrote in his famous book A Sand County Almanac.

Woodcocks, often called timberdoodles, are short-distance migrants, remaining in North America for the winter, some even staying in the same place year-round, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. They migrate at night, individually or in small groups, returning to northern Illinois to breed, typically in March.

They’ll continue their sunset dancing if the weather cooperates every day until about the end of May. Woodcocks find a shallow depression in grasses or open woods and line it with dead leaves and grasses in which the female lays four pinkish-buff eggs, blotched with brown and gray. The young hatch in about 20 or more days.

Sheryl DeVore has written six books on science, health and nature, as well as nature, health and environment stories for national and regional publications.

Photo by Don Blecha

Finding Woodcocks

Beginning birders can look to the sky for hawk action on their own in March. Finding a woodcock on one’s own can be more challenging. One complication is that entry into forest preserves and other similar areas is not allowed after sunset, when the birds begin dancing.

Birders suggest searching online for local bird clubs that are leading woodcock trips in March and April. These clubs have added certain protocols to the walks based on pandemic restrictions. Here’s a list of some local bird clubs that may lead free woodcock walks for anyone interested this spring. Note that some walks are only open to members due to the restricted number of participants during the pandemic. Also, wear appropriate clothing, including layers and good foot gear. It can be quite chilly waiting for woodcocks in early spring.

Chicago Ornithological Society:

DuPage Birding Club:

Evanston North Shore Bird Club:

Lake-Cook Audubon Society:

Orland Grassland: