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American Woodcock Life History


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


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


Nest Placement

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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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



American Woodcock populations declined between 1966 and 2019, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 3.5 million and rates them 12 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating a species of relatively low conservation concern. Woodcocks are one of the few shorebirds that are still hunted. Hunting tolls were about 1.5 million per year in the 1970s and have decreased to around 170,000 per year in 2020. 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. Preserving even-aged habitats suitable for breeding, including large areas of shrubland and young forest, will be necessary to prevent further population declines. Woodcocks may be extending their range northward and westward, using northern coniferous forests that are being opened up by large-scale harvesting.

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Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. (2020). Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2020. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2020.

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.

Partners in Flight. (2020). Avian Conservation Assessment Database, version 2020.

Raftovich, R. V., K. K. Fleming, S. C. Chandler, and C. M. Cain (2021). Migratory bird hunting activity and harvest during the 2019–20 and 2020-21 hunting seasons. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Laurel, MD, USA.

Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, D. J. Ziolkowski Jr., K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon, and W. A. Link (2019). The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2019. Version 2.07.2019. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD, USA.

Seamans, M. E., and R. D. Rau (2021). American woodcock population status, 2021. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Laurel, MD.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

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