By Sara Kahn
Also known as the timberdoodle, mudsnipe, labrador twister, or bogsucker, the woodcock is a species from woodland habitat. The genus name for the bird, Scolopax, actually means woodcock in Greek. About the size of a robin, the woodcock has a feather design of mottled brown and russet. With an unusually long bill, the woodcock probes muck for earthworms. The nostrils sit high on the bill for this reason. A woodcock’s eyes are set high and back on its head. This is helpful in staying clear of vegetation, avoiding splattering mud, and is a good way to see predators. As a matter of fact, woodcocks have better binocular vision to the rear than to the front. The ears are positioned in front of the eyes!
Woodcocks are active at dawn and dusk; this means that they are crepuscular. It is during this time that woodcocks perform the flight displays, which are followed by a “peent” call. Peenting is also used in territorial behavior. A single male may defend several spots in a field. To impress potential mates, the male does a zigzag flight in which he may fly hundreds of feet into the sky before coming down.
Although there is no positive way to distinguish between the sexes, the female is bigger. Males mate indiscriminately; the female is responsible for rearing the young. There is a maximum of four eggs laid and she lays one per day, incubating after the last is laid. Eggs are a pinkish cinnamon color and marked with brown. The nest is made among the fallen leaves under brush, tall weeds, trees, or rocky hollows in early March to June. As the female incubates the eggs, she relies heavily on her amazing camouflage and will stay on her nest until you can get close enough to touch her. If disturbed during early incubation, she may abandon her nest and only one brood is raised per year.
The young hatch over a twenty-four hour period and will start probing the soil for worms and insects after a day or two. At three weeks, they can fly short distances. They are with the mother for six to eight weeks until they go off on their own.
The female has some interesting behaviors as well. She will feign injury to lure predators away from her young. It is unclear whether woodcocks are one of the species that practices aerial carrying of their young. They may be faking this to lure away predators.
A young woodcock will be making its first move to warmer areas as the first hard frosts tell the birds to head south. Colder weather makes the ground too hard to probe and woodcocks need more than their body weight in worms daily. Migration starts in October and ends in mid-November. Woodcocks leave at dusk and fly through the night. Their flocks can range from a few to more than fifty birds. Wintering grounds are in Gulf Coast and southeast coastal states. The largest concentrations winter in central Louisiana. They migrate back to the north again as early as February, when the weather is warmer. The most northern states are reached by late March and early April.
Populations of woodcocks vary through the years. The birds are threatened by human development onto moist woodlands, timber maturation, and flooding. Bad weather, predation, accidents during night flight, hunting, disease, and parasites affect woodcock mortality. The woodcock’s life expectancy is 1.8 years, although banded woodcocks in the wild were found to be seven years old.
Interested in providing for woodcocks? High quality habitat for nesting is young, second growth woodlands with open spaces and is within ninety meters of a singing ground. Courtship will take place in spring near open fields next to forest edge, in abandoned fields with low brush, or in forest clearing. A quarter of an acre can provide enough of this needed space. However, large fields are needed for roosting. An ideal habitat will have an abundance of food as well as a shelter canopy that is diverse in age. As any cover matures, different tree species will take over and it becomes less attractive to the woodcock. Periodically harvesting large trees that would shade brush or hinder the growth of younger trees can be a solution or shrubs and trees can be planted. Management practices include cutting and controlled burning to renew the habitat for this bird and other wildlife and it must be maintained. Anyone willing to manage for woodcocks will be treated to a fascinating show of “peent” and nasal calls, foot-stamping to locate prey, and the sight of a shy, little, plump bird.