What is an American Woodcock?
Scientists, hunters, and bird watchers have been fascinated with the American woodcock for centuries. The number of nicknames for the woodcock varies almost as much as the habitat it crosses during migration. Woodcock make up for their small stature by being large in character. Measuring 10-12 inches in length (a little longer than a Bobwhite quail) and having a standing height of about five inches, a woodcock’s wingspread can be up to twenty inches. Body conformation might be described as portly. They are short and heavy, and have a thick neck and a large head. Were they the size of a man, woodcock would resemble a lineman on a football team. Woodcock are more closely related to plovers and snipes than to grouse or other forest or upland birds. With eyes set far back in the head, woodcock have an expanded field of vision. Their brain is upside-down, and the Latinate for the American woodcock is Scolopax minor. God surely created an interesting bird in the woodcock.
The most striking feature of the woodcock is their long, thin bill. The bill is prehensile–which means a special bone-muscle arrangement allows the tip of the upper bill, or mandible, to be opened while the bill is immersed underground while searching for their favorite food, the earthworm. The underside of the mandible and the long tongue feature rough surfaces which enable them to extract their slippery prey from the ground. The female’s bill length is generally two and three-quarters of an inch or longer while the male’s bill is usually less than two and one-half inches in length.
Woodcock spend a lot of time searching for their favorite meal and during migration the birds can eat up to their weight in worms every day. Females average 7.6 ounces compared to 6.2 ounces for a male which means the females are approximately a third larger than males.
These migratory ground birds favor early successional growth. During the spring, males require openings, often fields, for their singing grounds. It is here that they perform their courtship display in the hopes that they will attract females. When the light level reaches precisely 15 candle power at either dusk or dawn, the on-ground male begins the ritual with a peent–a sound intended to be most alluring to a female woodcock. The male eventually takes off and flies a few hundred feet up in the sky on twittering wings, where he then begins a zig-zag back to earth. During the descent he makes a mesmerizing liquid, warbling sound. Following this display, the females seek out the males on the singing grounds.
Woodcock of both sexes can breed before they are a year old. Hens usually nest within one hundred and fifty yards of the singing grounds where they mated. Little is done in the way of nest preparation; a typical nest is a slight depression in the ground in dead leaves. Woodcock typically nest from late March into June. A female will lay one egg a day until she completes her clutch which normally numbers four eggs. Eggs are quite large for such a diminutive-sized bird and measure 38×29 mm.
Incubation takes 19-22 days and the woodcock chicks split the eggs lengthwise to get out–something that is unique among birds. The chicks are able to leave the nest within a few hours of hatching, and they grow very rapidly. Within two weeks they are capable of flying short distances and at the end of just four weeks they are almost fully grown. Compared to most game birds, woodcock have a low potential productivity. A female raises only one brood per year and the brood consists of four, and sometimes only three, chicks. The species does have a high nesting success rate of 60-75 percent, as well as a relatively low juvenile mortality rate.
After the breeding cycle is complete, the birds move into nesting and brood rearing habitat. This habitat commonly includes young aspen, white birch and alders, but overgrown fields or recently logged areas are used as well. In the summer, woodcock like the young hardwoods with a dense understory and in the fall and during migration they’ll favor the moist soils found in stream bottoms or in primary and secondary growth hardwood stands.
Woodcock management regions, primary breeding range, and singing ground survey coverage. SOURCE: Wildlife Mgmt. Institute’s American Woodcock Conservation Plan.
As temperatures decrease and the ground begins to freeze, woodcock have a difficult time finding food and begin their southern migration. They will spend their winters in swampy areas full of switch cane and alders. Most Southern bird hunters ignore the woodcock in favor of their native bird, the bobwhite quail. Eventually as the seasons change, woodcock reverse their migration and are among the first birds to return to Northern reaches in the spring.
Thousand of wings are sent each year by successful woodcock hunters to the United States Department of the Interior’s Division of Migratory Bird Management at the Patuxent Research Center in Laurel, Maryland to be examined both for age and sex at an annual “wing bee.” A determination of the adult to yearling ratio can be gleaned from the wings and this ratio enables the United States Fish and Wildlife service to gauge annual productivity of the woodcock and aids them in setting the framework and the guidelines for hunting seasons for woodcock across their range.
Woodcock require habitat that is earthworm friendly, as that is their major food source. Old fields reverting to forest are likely places to find woodcock. Because they trundle around on short, stubby legs, woodcock look for areas where they can walk about relatively easily but where there is some overhead cover to shield them from avian predators: early-successional forest meets these requirements. Woodcock are frequently found along streams in moist, fertile bottomland, and aspen and alder–which frequent and enhance such places–are often indicators that such a place might hold woodcock. Throughout their range, habitat loss is the major factor contributing to their decline in numbers over the past several decades.
One of the key initiatives of Woodcock Limited is creating a mosaic of sustainable habitat. Conserving land is an important first step, but creating a healthy blend of breeding grounds and primary and secondary growth forests is critical to ensure successful breeding cycles that increase bird populations. Woodcock Limited sponsors numerous habitat improvement projects throughout the range of the American woodcock, and our goal is to significantly increase the number of projects internationally. We hope that you are interested in helping Woodcock Limited create more habitat, and that you’ll contact us for more information.