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The amazing American Woodcock

American Woodcock
An American Woodcock scratches in the leaf litter in a North Carolina woodland. When the birds walk, their bodies and legs move while their heads and bills remain perfectly still. Photo by David Byron Keener/Shutterstock

We were near a woodland clearing just before sundown when we heard the first buzzy peent. The distinct nasal tone assured us that a male American Woodcock was advertising his presence on his “singing ground,” and all females were welcome. Our hearts beat a little faster as we anticipated spectacular woodcock courtship. We weren’t disappointed.

After more peents, the male sprang to the air, beginning his famous “sky-dance,” which has similarities to flight by an untrained pilot. The high, twisting flight can reach several hundred feet and is accompanied by a twittering sound produced by air passing through the very narrow outer three wing feathers (primaries). He then hovers, drifting in a circular motion still twittering, and finally descends with a cascading pattern like a falling leaf while picking up speed and continuing to twitter. Listen carefully, especially during the descending flight, and you might hear single-note “chirps.” (Whether the chirps are vocal or produced mechanically from wing feathers is still unclear. For more, read David Sibley’s explanation.)

If females are present and impressed with the male’s romantic acrobatics, they’ll move to his landing area and approach him. The male will attempt copulation. Males and females do not form pair bonds, a breeding strategy called promiscuity. For this behavior to occur, the female must be able to build a nest, lay and incubate eggs, and brood and feed the young without help from the male. The nest is usually built within 50 feet of a wooded area.

A simple nest is prepared by scraping a shallow depression in a patch of short vegetation, including the previous fall’s dead leaves. The female usually lays four mottled eggs and incubates them for about 21 days. Because chicks communicate while in the shell, hatching can be synchronized over a short time period. After about four hours or so, the mother takes the chicks away. The chicks can feed themselves in three days, and after six to eight weeks, the brood disperses. Female woodcock are known to be “tight” nest sitters while incubating. Many people have had the scare of their lives when a woodcock flushes just a few feet away from them while they walk in the woods.

Females are somewhat larger and heavier than males, and both sexes have bills that are unusually long for their robin-like size. Female bills are about 2.75 inches long, and male bills are closer to 2.5 inches. Bills are used as probes, removing food items from damp soil. Earthworms are the birds’ most common food source, but they feed on almost any invertebrate they encounter. The distal third of the upper mandible is hinged and can be raised, a major feeding adaption. When sensitive nerve endings near the tip of the bill detect prey — even when the bill is submerged in the ground — they can open the distal part of their bill and close it like a forceps to grab the prey item and pull it to the surface.

Even though woodcock have adapted to uplands, they are classified with shorebirds (the Scolopacidae family), which includes waders such as sandpipers, curlews, and godwits. Almost all of these shorebirds are white or light underneath, with dark patterns on their crowns, backs, tails, and wings. This color pattern, called counter-shading, is an adaptation for concealment. In a well-illuminated habitat, such as a lakeshore, the 3D shape of a bird is less clear because of shadow effects. Woodcock, on the other hand, are dark, with a mixture of brown, buff, gray, and black in irregular patterns that blend with the colors of the nest site and understory, creating excellent cryptic coloration.

When first seeing a woodcock, the viewer is struck by the unusual head. It appears large with no neck. Rusty lines broadly cross the black crown from side to side, while the crown stripes on other shorebirds, if present, run lengthwise. This is a quick ID tip if you’re confused by woodcock and the similar-sized, long-billed Wilson’s Snipe.

The eyes are positioned higher and farther back than the eyes of other birds, actually infringing on the brain space. Consequently, the woodcock brain is positioned back and more vertical in position. The location of the eyes allows woodcock to see their surroundings while their bills are probing the mud for earthworms. The extreme position of the woodcock eyes permits bilateral vision both in front and in back of the bird.

Woodcock have a unique “weight-shift” style of walking whereby a bird will take a step, bring the body forward, and then shift its body back over the trailing foot and then back over the leading foot, then step out with the other foot, and the weight-shift continues. Sometimes there are several weight-shifts per step. Common explanations suggest that this pattern stimulates earthworm movement, which the woodcock can detect. But woodcock exhibit this behavior much of the time while walking — even when crossing a paved road or on snow.

If you have seen woodcock walking (or watched videos of them on YouTube), you may have noticed one other peculiar aspect of the behavior: While the body and legs are moving, their heads and bills remain perfectly still.

“Timberdoodles,” as woodcock are often called, or “mud bats” or “bog suckers,” nest in the eastern half of the United States and southern Canada, from the Atlantic coast to the Great Lakes, and winter in the southern half of that region. They prefer deciduous or mixed forests and require younger woodlots for courtship. The natural maturing of woodlots can be detrimental to woodcock success and may require special management.

American Woodcock are generally well hidden because they blend so well with their surroundings. To find them, however, is well worth the effort as they are handsome, unique, and masters of creative courtship. The timberdoodle is truly amazing.

 

When to watch

American Woodcock displays begin in southern states in late December and peak in mid to late February in Texas, Louisiana, and nearby states. From the Midwest to the East, the birds display from mid-March to mid-May. Males display twice daily, at dawn and dusk.

A spring twilight spectacular: American Woodcock’s courtship display

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Eldon Greij

Eldon Greij

Eldon Greij is professor emeritus at Hope College, located in Holland, Michigan, where he taught ornithology and ecology for many years. He is the founder of Birder’s World magazine and the author of our popular column “Amazing Birds.”

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