American Woodcock Life History

Habitat

Habitat ForestsWoodcocks 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.Back to top

Food

Food InsectsAmerican 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.Back to top

Nesting

Nest Placement

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

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.

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size:1-5 eggs
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.
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Behavior

Behavior ProbingThe 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. Back to top

Conservation

Conservation DecliningThe 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 have slowly been declining between 1966 and 2014; declines are most evident in New England, parts of the Mid-Atlantic, and Minnesota. This species is on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List, which lists species most in danger of extinction without significant conservation action. 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.Back to top

Credits

Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2015.2. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2015.

McAuley, Daniel G., Daniel M. Keppie and R. Montague Whiting Jr. 2013. American Woodcock (Scolopax minor), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

North American Bird Conservation Initiative. 2014. The State of the Birds 2014 Report. US Department of Interior, Washington, DC, USA.

Raftovich, R. V., K. A. Wilkins, S. S. Williams and H. L. Spriggs. 2012a. Migratory bird hunting activity and harvest during the 2010 and 2011 hunting seasons. Laurel: US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Sauer, J. R., J. E. Hines, J. E. Fallon, K. L. Pardieck, Jr. Ziolkowski, D. J. and W. A. Link. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, results and analysis 1966-2013 (Version 1.30.15). USGS Patuxtent Wildlife Research Center 2014b. Available from http://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs/.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley guide to birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, USA.

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