We were near a forest clearing just before sunset when we heard the first vivid look. The clear nasal sound assured us that a male American woodcock was promoting his presence in his “singing seat” and all women were welcome. Our hearts beat a little faster than we expected a spectacular woodcock commercial. We were not disappointed.
After further peents, the male jumped into the air and began his famous “sky dance”, which is similar to the flight of an untrained pilot. The high, spinning flight can reach several hundred feet and is accompanied by a chirping sound created by air flowing through the very narrow outer three wing feathers (primaries). Then it floats, drifting in a circular motion that still chirps, and finally descends in a cascading pattern like a falling leaf as it picks up speed and keeps chirping. Listen carefully, especially during the descending flight, and you may hear a single chirp. (Whether the chirps are loud or mechanically made from wing springs is still unclear. For more information, see David Sibley’s statement.)
When women are present and impressed by the man’s romantic acrobatics, they move to his landing site and approach him. The male will attempt copulation. Males and females do not form pair bonds, a breeding strategy called promiscuity. For this behavior to occur, the female must be able to build a nest, lay eggs and incubate, and hatch and feed the young without the help of the male. The nest is usually built within 50 feet of a wooded area.
A simple nest is prepared by scraping a shallow indentation in a piece of short vegetation, including the dead leaves from the previous fall. The female usually lays four spotty eggs and incubates them for about 21 days. Since chicks communicate in the shell, hatching can be synchronized over a short period of time. After about four hours the mother takes the chicks away. The chicks can feed themselves in three days and after six to eight weeks the brood disperses. Female woodcock are known as “close” nest sitters during incubation. Many people had the fear of their lives when a woodcock blushed just a few meters away while they were walking in the forest.
Females are slightly taller and heavier than males, and both sexes have bills that are unusually long for their robin size. Female bills are approximately 2.75 inches long and male bills are closer to 2.5 inches. Bills are used as probes to remove food from damp soil. Earthworms are the most common source of food for birds, but they feed on almost all invertebrates they encounter. The distal third of the upper jaw is articulated and can be raised, which is an important adjustment to the feeding. When sensitive nerve endings near the tip of the beak detect prey – even if the line is submerged in the ground – they can open the distal portion of their line and close like a pair of tweezers to grab the prey item and pull it to the surface.
Although woodcock have adapted to the highlands, they are classified with waders (the Scolopacidae family), which includes waders such as sandpipers, curlews, and snipes. Almost all of these waders are white or light underneath, with dark patterns on their crowns, backs, tails, and wings. This color pattern, known as counter-shading, is an adjustment for obfuscation. In a well-lit habitat like a lake shore, the 3D shape of a bird is less clear due to shadow effects. Woodcock, on the other hand, is dark, with a mix of brown, buff, gray, and black in irregular patterns that blend with the colors of the nesting site and undergrowth, creating an excellent cryptic coloration.
At the first sight of a woodcock, the viewer falls on the unusual head. It appears big without a neck. Rusty lines cross the black crown broadly from side to side, while the crown stripes of other waders, if any, run lengthways. This is a quick ID tip if you’re confused by woodcock and the similarly sized, long-billed Wilson’s Snipe.
The eyes are positioned higher and further back than the eyes of other birds and actually violate the brain space. As a result, the woodcock’s brain is positioned back and more vertical. The position of the eyes allows woodcock to see their surroundings while their bills search the mud for earthworms. The extreme position of the woodcock’s eyes allows a bilateral view both in front of and behind the bird.
Woodcock has a unique way of weight shifting in which a bird takes a step, brings its body forward, and then moves its body over the back foot and then back over the leading foot, and then exits with the other foot and the weight shift continues. Sometimes there are multiple weight shifts per step. Common explanations suggest that this pattern stimulates earthworm movement, which the woodcock can detect. But woodcock display this behavior most of the time when walking – even when crossing a paved road or on snow.
If you’ve seen woodcock walking (or watched videos of them on YouTube), you may have noticed another particular aspect of their behavior: while their bodies and legs are moving, their heads and bills remain perfectly still.
“Timberdoodles,” as woodcock are often called, or “mudbats” or “bog-suckers” nest in the eastern half of the United States and southern Canada, from the Atlantic coast to the Great Lakes, and in winter the southern half of this region . They prefer deciduous or mixed forests and need younger pieces of forest for advertising. The natural ripening of woodlands can be detrimental to woodcock success and may require special management.
American woodcock are generally well hidden because they blend so well with their surroundings. However, they are well worth finding as they are handsome, unique, and masters of creative advertising. The Timberdoodle is really amazing.
When to see
American Woodcock displays begin in the southern states in late December and peak in Texas, Louisiana, and nearby states in mid to late February. From the Midwest to the East, the birds show up from mid-March to mid-May. Men show twice a day at dawn and dusk.
A spectacle at dawn: American Woodcocks courtship
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