American woodcock: unique woodland species

Living in Balance
By Jenipher Appleton

The back section of our three-acre property is an expanse of wonderful thickets, shrubs, and hedgerows. In late October, while walking just before dusk, Fergus the Lab managed to flush up a stocky, short-bodied bird with a very long beak. I knew immediately that it must be an American woodcock (Scolopax minor). It flew about 100 meters and landed in the dense brush. A little research renewed my knowledge of and interest in this most unique of game birds.
The American woodcock is nicknamed the timberdoodle. It is very similar to the common snipe, which is also classed as a game bird. I would think that there would be some very slim pickin’s if you wanted to make a meal of one of these birds, which weigh in at well under half a pound. The woodcock’s population is relatively common and its behaviour migratory.

The American woodcock has a short, dumpy body, is short-tailed and robin-sized. The plumage is a patterned cinnamon on top and on its back, beautifully camouflaging it against the dead leaves of the forest floor. It is brown underneath and has black and brown barring on the crown of the head. The legs are short and pinkish and the bill is very long and also pinkish. Its eyes are located high in the head, affording it a visual field of 360 degrees in the horizontal plane and 180 degrees in the vertical plane. It is certainly adapted to seeing predators coming from overhead.

During courtship, the male will circle in flight as high as 90 meters, hovering, chirping and then gliding in a zigzag pattern toward earth. The feathers make a sort of whistling sound during this courtship display. The woodcock female lays a clutch of one to four eggs, which are creamy buff with brown spots. The nest is on the ground (similar to the killdeer) in an open wooded location. Also like the killdeer, the young are precocial, which means they are fully fledged and ready to leave the nest almost immediately. They are dependent on the mother for the first week for food and begin probing for worms after three or four days.

A strange perambulation
When I was in grade school back in the ’60s, my father was the local public school inspector. A few times a year he would end up in my classroom to ‘inspect’ what the teacher and students were up to; much to the chagrin of the teacher. Usually I was delighted by his entertaining visits, but one visit sticks out in my mind as simply mortifying.
Dad was a naturalist and birder, and on this particular day he was talking about the American woodcock. He took it upon himself to demonstrate the unusual walk of the stocky little bird. My father would plant one foot firmly on the floor ahead of him at the front of the classroom, and then proceed to bend his knees and wiggle himself forward and backward. He would then proceed to do it all over again with the other leg in the forward position. He looked completely ridiculous up there in his three piece suit demonstrating the American woodcock’s silly antics. My classmates found it hilarious as I was trying to slide myself under my desk and out of sight. However, I have learned through my current research the reason why the woodcock elicits this behaviour.

A feeding strategy
The woodcock eats mainly earthworms and arthropods, and sometimes plant material. Its long bill is somewhat flexible and acts like a pair of tweezers. In order to procure its meal of earthworms, the woodcock will step heavily on the ground with one foot forward (possibly causing earthworms to move). It then rocks its body back and forth without moving its head. This may make the worms move around in the soil and make it easier for the bird to probe around and catch the worms in its tweezer-like bill. So the antics of the woodcock (and my father) have a purpose after all. Watch for this interesting bird at dawn or dusk near thickets and young forests.