Birds with unusual habits

Most animals have behaviours which are common only to their particular species or genus but some animals have habits which seem quite strange. The American woodcock is one of these.

It has the taxonomic name of Scolopax minor and the colloquial name of ‘timberdoodle’. It is also known as the bogsucker, night partridge and hokumpoke. It is a small, chunky shorebird and the only woodcock species to be found in North America. Its natural habitat is brushy, young forest environments and its black, grey and brown plumage serves it well as camouflage. They frequent the eastern half of North America and spend most of their time on the ground.

The woodcock inhabits areas east of the 98th meridian. They migrate in winter and may turn up at the Gulf Coast States. Its breeding range extends from Atlantic Canada down the east coast to as far south as Florida and Texas.

The American woodcock lives mostly in upland settings in brushy young forests. It is also seen in mixed forest/agricultural/urban areas. Wet thickets, moist woods and swamps are all home to the woodcock.

This species has a plump body and short legs. The birds are a mix of brown, grey and black. The underparts vary from a yellowy white to rich tan. The nape is black with deep buff or rufous bars.

The feet and toes are small and weak but capable of detecting ground vibrations. The large eyes are situated high in the head, enabling the bird to see 360o over a horizontal plane and 180o vertically. The ears are between the eyes and the bill and well able to detect subsoil movements of its major prey, the earthworm.

The head is large and rounded with a long, straight bill. Adults weigh between 5 and 9 ounces and are 10 to 12 inches long with females being much larger than males. The wingspan is between 16½ inches and 19 inches.

American WoodcockCredit: Wikimedia

The beak is 2.5 to 2.75 inches long with a flexible tip. Sensitive nerve endings in the end of the beak enable it to tell when it has a worm in its grasp. It will rock back and forth without moving the head and step heavily with the front foot. This causes the worms to move around and makes their exact location easier to pinpoint.

The bird is crepuscular therefore most active early morning and late afternoon. During the mating season the male will circle high in the air at dusk, keeping up a continual twitter. From the highest point of his flight, he will suddenly plummet towards earth in a zigzag fashion. The three outer primaries on the wings make a great racket as he descends. The same noise may save the woodcock from predators as they are momentarily put off by the noise, giving the woodcock a few seconds longer to make his escape.

Another interesting behaviour occurs when food becomes scarce during dry spells. As the earth dries out, the earthworms go lower into the ground following the moister layers. When the rain comes, the vibrations made by the rain on the ground cause the earthworm to come to the surface so it won’t get drowned. If the woodcock is a bit short on worms, it may drum on the soil with its feet, causing the worm to come to the surface in the false belief that it is raining.

Woodcock migrate at night but in a leisurely fashion and either alone or in loose flocks. It is believed they use visual landmarks to find their way. My source didn’t say how it manages to do this at night!

The woodcock probes for, mainly, invertebrates and earthworms in the soil. The bird is able to open and close the tip of its upper bill while it is stuck in the ground, thanks to a unique bone-and-muscle arrangement. The underside of the upper mandible and the tongue has a rough surface to enable them to more easily grip slippery prey. They feed mostly where the soil is moist, particularly in thickets where they are better hidden from predators.

The male has a wonderful courtship display. They occupy individual ‘singing grounds’ and put on their displays at dawn and dusk. After a series of calls or ‘peents’, the male flies 50 to 100 yards into the air in a wide spiral then zigzags and banks his way down, singing as he goes. As he gains height the wings start to twitter.

If a female is sufficiently impressed, she will fly in and land near a singing male. He will walk stiff-legged to her, bobbing and bowing, with the wings stretched vertically. The male may mate with more than one female and plays no further part in the reproductive process after mating although he may continue to engage in his displays for some months.

The hen makes a simple, shallow nest in leaf litter. Four eggs is the usual clutch and incubation is 20 to 22 days.

American Woodcock ChickCredit: Wikimedia

The chicks leave the nest soon after hatching and are brooded and fed by the hen. The chicks probe for worms a few days after hatching, make short flights within a fortnight and are independent at about five weeks of age.

The American woodcock is one of the few shorebirds which are regularly hunted. It is a popular gamebird with hundreds of thousands being killed annually by hunters. Its numbers are falling very slightly, possibly because of forest maturation and urban development. There is now an American Woodcock Conservation Plan which has researched the acreage of young forest that needs to be maintained to stabilise the population.

Creating young-forest habitat assists over 50 other wildlife species that rely on young forest for some if not all of their life cycles. Some of these are reasonably common such as the bobcat, moose, wild turkey, snowshoe hare and ruffed grouse but others are less so and the establishment of suitable habitat would be of great assistance to the survival of the golden-winged warbler, New England cottontail, willow flycatcher and whip-poor-will.