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American Woodcock

Scolopax minor ORDER: CHARADRIIFORMES FAMILY: SCOLOPACIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Superbly camouflaged against the leaf litter, the brown-mottled American Woodcock walks slowly along the forest floor, probing the soil with its long bill in search of earthworms. Unlike its coastal relatives, this plump little shorebird lives in young forests and shrubby old fields across eastern North America. Its cryptic plumage and low-profile behavior make it hard to find except in the springtime at dawn or dusk, when the males show off for females by giving loud, nasal peent calls and performing dazzling aerial displays.

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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
9.8–12.2 in
25–31 cm
Wingspan
16.5–18.9 in
42–48 cm
Weight
4.1–9.8 oz
116–279 g
Relative Size
Bigger and plumper than a Killdeer; slightly smaller than a Rock Pigeon.
Other Names
  • Timberdoodle
  • Bécasse d'Amérique (French)
  • (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • The male woodcock’s evening display flights are one of the magical natural sights of springtime in the East. He gives buzzy peent calls from a display area on the ground, then flies upward in a wide spiral. As he gets higher, his wings start to twitter. At a height of 200–350 feet the twittering becomes intermittent, and the bird starts to descend. He zigzags down, chirping as he goes, then lands silently (near a female, if she is present). Once on the ground, he resumes peenting and the display starts over again.
  • Wouldn’t it be useful to have eyes in the back of your head? American Woodcocks come close—their large eyes are positioned high and near the back of their skull. This arrangement lets them keep watch for danger in the sky while they have their heads down probing in the soil for food.
  • The American Woodcock probes the soil with its bill to search for earthworms, using its flexible bill tip to capture prey. The bird walks slowly and sometimes rocks its body back and forth, stepping heavily with its front foot. This action may make worms move around in the soil, increasing their detectablity.
  • The conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote that the woodcock’s mesmerizing sky dances were “a refutation of the theory that the utility of a game bird is to serve as a target, or to pose gracefully on a slice of toast.” His writing helped spur the mid-twentieth century conservation movement.
  • Some males display at several singing grounds and mate with multiple females. The female often visits four or more singing grounds before nesting, and she may keep up these visits even while she cares for her young. The male gives no parental care, and continues to display long after most females have laid eggs.
  • Young woodcocks leave the nest a few hours after hatching, but for their first week they depend on their mother for food. They start to probe in dirt at three or four days after hatching.
  • The woodcock is also known as the timberdoodle, Labrador twister, night partridge, and bog sucker.
  • The oldest American Woodcock on record was 11 years, 4 months old.

Habitat


Forest

Woodcocks nest in young, shrubby, deciduous forests, old fields, and mixed forest-agricultural-urban areas across the eastern United States and southern Canada. They display in forest openings and old fields in the springtime, and they often use clearings for roosting in the summer. On the western edge of their range, they may depend on moist, wooded riverside areas and wet meadows in young woodlands. Woodcocks spend the winter in similar habitats in southern part of breeding range, also moving into additional wintering habitat in Texas and on the southern edges of the Gulf States.

Food


Insects

American Woodcocks eat earthworms and other invertebrates they find in the soil, including snails, millipedes, spiders, flies, beetles, and ants. They forage by probing the soil with their long bills, which have flexible upper mandibles specialized for capturing and extracting earthworms. They sometimes rock their bodies backward and forward as they forage, shifting their weight heavily from foot to foot. The vibrations from this motion may prompt earthworms to move underground, making slight sounds that the woodcock may be able to hear or feel. They also eat small amounts of plant material, such as sedges, pigweed, and members of the rose family.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
1–5 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
1.4–1.7 in
3.6–4.3 cm
Egg Width
1.1–1.2 in
2.7–3.1 cm
Incubation Period
20–22 days
Egg Description
Grayish orange with splotches of brown, violet-gray or blue-gray.
Condition at Hatching
Active, well developed, and covered with thick gray and brown down.
Nest Description

The female makes a shallow depression in the leaf and twig litter, about 5 inches across and 1.5 inches deep. In some cases she lays eggs without hollowing out a nest bowl.

Nest Placement

Ground

Woodcocks nest in exposed sites on the ground, usually in young upland woods.

Behavior


Probing

The American Woodcock breeds early in spring, with males beginning their courtship displays—sky dancing at dawn and dusk—as early as December in the southern part of the range and as early as March in the north. Males mate with multiple females and give no parental care. The nesting female is quick to abandon a nest if it is disturbed in the early stages of incubation. Later on, she may respond to an intruder by first lying low and motionless, then flushing from the nest and feigning injury to distract the intruder. The female broods the nestlings only until they dry off; they all leave the nest together a few hours after hatching. She feeds the young for a week but they begin to probe for food on their own at 3-4 days. About a month later they become independent, moving around as individuals rather than with their siblings. Outside of the nesting season, woodcocks are generally solitary, though they may group into small clusters of 2–4 individuals. Physical contact between individuals is rare, but they may sometimes tug bills.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

The American Woodcock is fairly numerous, although it is hard to detect with standardized surveys like the North American Breeding Bird Survey or Christmas Bird Count. Best estimates from the Breeding Bird Survey suggest their populations are stable or slightly declining; declines are most evident in New England, parts of the Mid-Atlantic, and Minnesota. Woodcocks are one of the few shorebirds that are still hunted. Hunting tolls have declined from about 1.5 million per year in the 1970s to about 300,000 per year in the 2010s. Hunting has not been shown to influence large-scale population trends; recent declines may be related to natural forest succession combined with habitat loss due to development. Because they forage on the forest floor, woodcocks can accumulate pesticides in their bodies from aerial spraying against forest-insect pests. Their heavy diet of earthworms makes them vulnerable to poisoning by lead, cadmium, and other heavy metals. To prevent further population declines, people may need to focus on preserving even-aged habitats suitable for breeding, including large areas of shrubland and young forest. Woodcocks may be extending their range northward and westward, using northern coniferous forests that are being opened up by large-scale harvesting.

Credits

Range Map Help

American Woodcock Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Resident to short-distance migrant. Most populations migrate southward for winter, staying in North America. Some southern populations may stay in the same place year-round. Northern populations travel to and from the Gulf states following broad eastern and central flyways. They migrate during the night at a leisurely pace, singly or in small flocks.

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