This episode has been adapted from the Spring, 2010 issue of the BogHaunter, the newsletter of the Friends of the Cedarburg Bog; it was written by the BugLady, wearing a different hat. Woodcocks were a big part of her childhood – their return to our brushy fields was celebrated each year. Thanks, Mom, thanks, Dad.
Coming soon, to a field near you!
American Woodcocks (Scolopax minor) are long-billed, big-eyed, short-legged, round-winged, Robin-sized birds. The Cornell University All about Birds website says “Their large heads, short necks, and short tails give them a bulbous look on the ground and in flight” (“Bulbous?” Really?). Their brown-streaked plumage makes them impossible (for the BugLady) to spot on the ground – she once stood near two young birds for about five minutes until they couldn’t stand it anymore and departed, with wings whistling. Woodcocks are shorebirds that are not tied to the shoreline – upland game birds, the “Landlubbers” of the shorebird family. These odd-looking birds (apparently, hunting dogs find them odd-smelling, too) have many nicknames, like “timberdoodle” and “bog-sucker” and “night partridge.”
A woodcock is a bundle of adaptations. Their short wings make it easier for them to maneuver in the brushy fields, woody edges, wet meadows, and open woodlands that they call home, and the fact that they are able to fly slower than any other bird – 5 MPH – serves them well in those spots.
Most of their adaptations have to do with their feeding habits. That long bill allows a woodcock to extract earthworms and other invertebrates from deep in the moist soil. The tip of the bill is both flexible and sensitive and can be opened without opening the base. Worms are slippery little devils, and roughened surfaces on the tongue and upper bill help it to get a grip. And a good thing – a woodcock may eat its weight (about a half-pound) in worms daily. Check out this video of a woodcock foraging.
Several sources said that the woodcock’s typical rocking walk may produce vibrations that rouse earthworms into motion so that the woodcock can hear it (and yes – you’ll get some interesting hits if you Google “Woodcock walk like an Egyptian”).
Any animal that feeds with its head down runs the risk of becoming a meal while having a meal. Over time, woodcock eyes have migrated toward the top of their head. As a result, woodcocks have good vision both in back and to the sides while they probe for worms (as opposed to a robin, which has eyes on each side of its skull and can’t see much to the fore or aft). Because their eyes have thus migrated, their brains are upside down.
But, they’re famous for something besides their looks.
Woodcocks make their presence known in early spring – often by mid-March – when males take to the air to perform their amazing “sky dance.” They begin around sunset and continue into the wee hours, especially if the moon is full – the BugLady has heard them in her field at 1:00 AM. Here’s how it goes. After calling from the ground for a while – a nasal sound described as a “peent” (see this video from YouTube) – the male takes off. Specially-shaped wing feathers produce a twittering sound as he spirals into the air, sometimes more than 300 feet up. From high in the sky he zigzags back down, vocalizing a rich “chirp, chirp, chirp, chirp” sound.
Let Aldo Leopold tell it:
Up and up he goes, the spirals steeper and smaller, the twittering louder and louder, until the performer is only a speck in the sky. Then, without warning, he tumbles like a crippled plane, giving voice in a soft liquid warble that a March bluebird might envy. At a few feet from the ground he levels off and returns to his peenting ground, usually to the exact spot where the performance began, and there resumes his peenting.
There, the theory goes, the awed female woodcock will find him. The dance is repeated at dawn.
The first sound on this audio is the chirping call of a descending bird, and if you listen, after he’s landed and is peenting, you can hear the faint “Whoop – Whoop” sound that apparently is a communication between two birds that are on the ground. More vocalizations can be heard in the “Sound and Calls” section at the bottom-right-hand corner of this page.
Once she finds him, he struts and bows with outstretched wings. Females may make the acquaintance of several males, and vice versa, but by the end of April, the show’s about over. Males will continue their sky dance into early May – even though most of their potentially appreciative audience is sitting on eggs. Hope springs eternal, and some females will join the dance even while they’re caring for young.
Woodcocks nest on the ground; females line a shallow depression with leaves and deposit (usually) four eggs in it. She will sit on them for about three weeks, often incubating during the final snowstorms of spring. The young are “precocial,” (think precocious) – unlike the blind and naked young of songbirds, woodcock nestlings are dried off and running around within hours of hatching, and although she continues to feed them for a week or so, the young are probing for food when they’re just three or four days old, and flying after two weeks. The male does no incubation or child care.
As ground-nesting birds, woodcocks are preyed on by dogs, cats, skunks, possums, and snakes. The BugLady once saw a woodcock fluttering across the grass-tops in a field, pursued by a raccoon; it may have been a female, leading the raccoon away from her nest.
Many birds undertake epic migrations, but as the ground chills and worms migrate vertically to escape the frost, woodcocks need only travel to the Southeastern and Gulf States, where unfrozen ground allows them access to food. Woodcocks migrate at night, at low altitudes, alone or in small groups, usually starting in October. The trip is unhurried, with the birds’ cruising along at about 25 MPH on these flights. They start the return trip in February.
Around the beginning of the 20th century, books were being cranked out by “nature-fakers,” who romanticized and anthropomorphized the daily lives of the animals they wrote about. They wrote that a woodcock was able to set its own leg if one got broken – the proof being the crusted mud often seen on woodcocks’ legs.
“Bulbous.” Such an ugly word!