Birds & Birding

The American Woodcock: Tribute to a Wonderful Wetland Bird

February 18, 2015

Woodcock in hand: Flickr user Matt MacGillivray under a Creative Commons license.

Timberdoodle. Bogsucker. Becasee.

Is there a bird that inspires more unusual nicknames than the American woodcock?

Perhaps that’s for good reason, because this is one of the most unusual birds you’ll ever meet.

And I have a long history with this strange denizen of forest and bog.

The American Woodcock (Scolopax minor) is one of my favorite bearers of good news. As a young wildlife biologist at the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point, I learned that its arrival on singing grounds signaled the end of a long, cold winter.

It was during these times that I would spend hours in Schmeeckle Reserve, across the road from my dormitory, watching the males display in their characteristic courtship flight.

It was in those woods that I grew to love this shy little bird.

In Louisiana, where I live, the woodcock’s arrival again brings me good news – cooling temperatures and crisp mornings in the Atchafalaya River Basin behind bird dogs.

And the warming winds of February leave me with good memories of another season with these wonderful birds.

Woodcock in brush: Flickr user guizmo_68 under a Creative Commons license.
Woodcock in brush: Flickr user guizmo_68 under a Creative Commons license.

Meet the Woodcock

American Woodcock are one of six woodcock species worldwide. Actually a shorebird, its aforementioned nicknames — Bécasse (French translation), Timberdoodle, and Bogsucker — are all indicative of its preferred habitat and habits.

Timberdoodles like their feet wet, but not too wet. They live mainly in young, dense wet forests near streams, rivers, and marshes.

Weighing in at less than a half-pound, they are short, squatty buff-colored birds, superbly camouflaged to match fallen leaves on the forest floor.

Their large eyes are set high on their head, giving them superior, almost 360° vision for detecting predators while feeding, often at night. Woodcock also have a long bill (about 2.5 inches) for probing soft, wet soil for earthworms, which make up over three-quarters of their diet, along with other invertebrates, like insects, snails, spiders and millipedes.

Bogsucker bills also have a prehensile tip, which can be opened to capture prey even when inserted into the ground! They are excellent fliers, with short-powerful wings and a high wing-to-weight ratio. These characteristics make them superb navigators in thick woods and powerful enough to migrate long distances.

American Woodcock are distributed across eastern North America, ranging from the about 50° North, south to the Gulf of Mexico states. They breed and spend summers from the Manitoba/Saskatchewan border across the Great Lakes east to Newfoundland and New England and south into Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia.

Beginning in late March, males seek out woodland openings and clearings at dawn and dusk, when light levels are just right, to sing and display for females for about one hour.

They stake their claim and begin to seduce females with a series of buzzing “peent” sounds.

After several peents, the male takes off into a spiraling flight, singing a melodious, warbling song on the way up that mixes with the classic Woodcock “twittering” sound on the way down, as wind rushes through the three outer primary wing feathers.

He returns to the same spot after each spirally flight. Interested females enter the clearing, and males display with a bobbing, bowing, strut, complete with a fanned tail. Females visit many males, and males mate with as many females as possible.

During mating season, woodcock are often easy to find, and displaying birds are seldom disturbed by onlookers, so if you get a chance, it’s a show worth seeing!

After mating, females construct rudimentary nests on the ground in dense, brushy woods, close to singing grounds, and most lay and incubate four, pinkish eggs with brown spots. While this is a rather low number of eggs, nest success is rather high and females will readily re-nest.

Baby woodcock: Flickr user Jacob Enos under a Creative Commons license.
Baby woodcock: Flickr user Jacob Enos under a Creative Commons license.

After about three weeks, chicks hatch with a superior camouflage of tan-yellow down with brown stripes and spots. Within hours, the precocial chicks follow their mother from the nest into dense hardwood stands with moist soil, where she broods and feeds the young.

Chicks develop rapidly, feeding themselves within days and beginning to fly within a few weeks, finally reaching independence after about 5 weeks.

During this brood-rearing time, there have been interesting anecdotal reports  (going back to the 1940s) of females flying with chicks attached to their bodies, moving them from one place to another.

An Unlikely Migrant

While this seems like an odd behavior for such a small bird, the Timberdoodle’s large wing-to-weight ratio makes them very strong fliers for their size.

After mating, males move into the same feeding cover to spend the rest of spring and summer.

During this time woodcock feed voraciously, gorging themselves each day to get ready for their fall migration to wintering grounds.

Eurasian woodcock, like their American relatives, feed heavily on worms. Photo: Wikimedia user Ronald Slabke under a Creative Commons license
Eurasian woodcock, like their American relatives, feed heavily on worms. Photo: Wikimedia user Ronald Slabke under a Creative Commons license

As autumn approaches, Timberdoodles begin a leisurely migration south to spend the winter where cold weather will not freeze the moist ground.

While large flights are sometimes seen ahead of large winter storm fronts, more commonly, woodcock migrate individually or in small groups, sort of bouncing ahead of the cold, rather than the more direct flights of other species of migrating birds.

Beginning in early October, migrants follow coastlines and river systems to the wintering grounds.

Although the wintering range has been reported to extend all the way from coastal New York through the southeastern and Gulf states to the lower Texas coast, studies have found three core areas with consistently high numbers of wintering birds – eastern Texas to central Louisiana, the South Carolina coastal plain, and the Lower Delmarva Peninsula.

Lower Delmarva, in particular, Cape Charles, Virginia, typically boasts the highest counts in the nation, because this area serves as a combination migration stopover and wintering site.

Other studies have estimated that perhaps 50% of the wintering population moves into the forested wetlands of Louisiana, with the largest concentration occurring in the Atchafalaya River Basin. Beginning in late January and early February, Timberdoodles begin to get the urge to mate, signaling the time for migration once again – this time north and back to the breeding grounds.

Woodcock are hunted by a relatively small but dedicated group of upland bird hunters – the tight-holding quarry considered too easy by some and, because of their preference for young, thick bottom lands, considered too hard by others.

Across their range, a little over 300,000 birds are harvested each fall, beginning in early October in the northern extents and lasting until the end of January in the southern extremes.

While it may seem an unpopular idea, selective clearcuts create excellent woodcock habitat. Photo: George Gress/TNC
While it may seem an unpopular idea, selective clearcuts create excellent woodcock habitat. Photo: George Gress/TNC

Clearcutting for Timberdoodles

Over the last 40 years, numbers of woodcock have been decreasing about 1% per year, making this a species of greatest conservation need in some states. Experts agree that the biggest driver is habitat conversion.

Development obviously converts habitat to concrete. But one of the main drivers of the woodcock decline is actually forest conservation. That might seem counterintuitive. But in much of the eastern United States, forests haven’t been logged in decades.

As such, the young, brushy forests that woodcock need are aging into mature forests that woodcock don’t use. The uniform, dense forests that cover much of the east leave little room for woodcock.

That has some conservationists advocating for inclusion of seemingly unpopular forest management tools, like clearcutting and fire, to provide habitat that woodcock need. (Read more about this issue in an upcoming blog).

Regeneration of forests has eliminated the openings needed by woodcock. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC
Regeneration of forests has eliminated the habitat needed by woodcock. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC

Today, as the February weather begins to warm in Louisiana and across their range, the woodcock are beginning to leave for their trip back north with love on their minds.

Males will adopt their familiar, puffy strut-of-spring, slinging their low-lumen sales pitch into the spring woods.

And so I bid them goodbye for now, reflecting on the wonderful mornings of hot coffee, good friends, and spectacular wingshooting. I also hope that they find more suitable habitat with each year, so that they may continue to provide good news to me and my two sons for years to come.

Join the Discussion

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19 comments

    1. Amen – Which is why I argue that few if any woodcock nested north of the glaciar line prior to 1492

  1. Nice article, but if you like them, please don’t think it’s noble to hunt and kill them. Hunt and WATCH them!

    1. @Nancy –

      Your comment about not hunting woodcock maybe well intentioned however, it is not well considered. Hunters do more for the support of wildlife and wildlife habitat yearly than any other group in the United States. By respecting seasons and limits (management standards established yearly by degreed scientist in the field of ecology, wildlife biology, silviculture, and land management) purchasing all required licences, and paying federal excise taxes on hunting equipment and ammunition, individual hunters make a massive contribution towards ensuring the future of many species of wildlife and habitat for the future. Far exceeding any other group. By paying the Federal excise tax on hunting equipment, hunters are contributing hundreds of millions of dollars for conservation programs that benefit many wildlife species, both hunted and non- hunted.

      Each year, nearly $200 million in hunters’ federal excise taxes are distributed to State agencies to support wildlife management programs. Proceeds from the Federal Duck Stamp, a required purchase for migratory waterfowl (and woodcock) hunters, have purchased more than five million acres of habitat for the refuge system (2005 statistics only); lands that support waterfowl and many other wildlife species. This support has been ongoing since the passage of the Pittman Robertson Act of 1937, even then championed by hunters – putting forward support for an act that would increase taxes solely on themselves.

      In large part woodcock, woodcock habitat, as well as wetlands, waterfowl, and early successional habitat (used by most species of wildlife at some point in their life cycle or yearly cycle of survival) are provided for by hunters. Certainly more so than any other group in the United States. This is true in dollars spent, dollars donated and time donated to habitat improvement projects worked on by individual hunters through groups like Ruffed Grouse Society, American Woodcock Society, Ducks Unlimited, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and others.

      1. Adam,

        Your reply to Nancy was wonderfully thought through and succinctly stated. We all need to respect those who are opposed to hunting, and I don’t diminish their concerns…BUT as a separate issue we have common ground in our shared concern for birds like the woodcock. What a wonderful thing it would be for hunters and non/anti-hunters to share the work and responsibility for enhancing and protecting habitat and not just trying to stop hunters from hunting (which ultimately does not help). At the very least, Nancy should buy a hunting license in her state, and then not hunt. This would be much more beneficial to wildlife than just expressing anti-hunting sentiment.

  2. Audubon found the Woodcock living north only to New Jersey, with the native worms. Now that European worms are everywhere they’re up along James Bay in northern Ontario, but this has only happened in recent decades.

  3. Thanks for this! We live in southern NH on an acreage. Every spring with the melt, water runs down the mountain behind our house and we have an erstwhile brook in our yard that flows to a pond at the bottom of our property. Over the past few years in my trudging across that brook I’ve scared up woodcocks. They startle me as much as me them. I did find a carcass in our garage crawl space (our cat was responsible I’m sure) and that long straight beak had me puzzled. Happily, she’s grown fat and lazy and has just resorted to bird watching from inside.
    Our yard is clear and we have lots of brush at the perimeter before the woods begin. Good to know this is their favorite!

  4. Ach goodness how adorable can you get? Charming little strut, there. Argument for clear-cutting a little spotty though. Can’t say I’d imagine that the untold species which would find that detrimental would be easily chalked up as a reasonable sacrifice. Perimeters for a considerable distance around big cuts furthermore are absent of their old denizens as well. Suppose we’ll read about it in aforementioned upcoming issue……

    1. In fact, there are far more species and individuals of birds, mammals, and herptiles in a 2-year-old clerarcut than in a mature forest. In a clearcut, the sunlight reaches the forest floor and produces herbs and seeds, thus food for many species. In fact, regardless of what is done to the landscape, it will benefit some species and discriminate others. The important thing is to understand the affects on the various species.

      1. I sure would like to sit down and talk to you. I have read everything you have published and many more I have questions and thoughts.

        I did my graduate school work up at ESF-SUNY.

        Frank
        AKA The Cajun

  5. Just saw my first American Woodcock while strolling, with my wife, through Greenwood cemetery in Brooklyn. We watched it for about five minutes, all the time it was bobbing, and probing the mud. We slowly walked away, leaving it undisturbed.

  6. I winter in New Orleans and have a your English setter to train and want to take advantage of winter Woodcock in Louisiana, somewhere close to NOLA. He needs lots of work to be steady to wing and shot by spring field trial season.

    HELP. I need advice.

    Jim

  7. I agree with all about the need for increasing habitat for wildlife. Here in the East, the Forest Service needs all of our support to be allowed to carry out its Forest Plans for regenerating timber harvests which include clearcutting areas to create the young forest mosaic necessary for wildlife of many kinds, including the woodcock.

  8. Great videos. Listening to them at dusk at our home, I noticed a soft sound immediately before the peent. I heard it again in the videos. It seems that the peent is in response to it. I cannot find any reference to it on any websites. Does anyone know what the sound is?
    Thanks.

  9. What a wonderful blog on woodcocks. Thank you so much for sharing info on such a remarkable species. I was looking for blogs with a Louisiana-Indiana connection when I clicked on your blog. I live very close to the Atchafalaya and I will be listening for this cute bugger.