Bird enthusiasts know that spring is nearby when the American woodcock (Philohela minor) returns to its spring singing grounds. This woodland bird is well known for its springtime courtship displays. It is also a popular game bird.
Woodcocks are referred to by several common names. Among these are timberdoodle, mud bat, bog sucker, whistler, night becasse, hokumpake, and marsh plover. It is also called snipe, mud snipe, wood snipe, blind snipe, and owl snipe.
The American woodcock stands 5 inches tall and is 12 inches long. It has a wingspan of 20 inches. The woodcock's weight varies greatly with the seasons. Females weigh 1/4 to 1/2 pound; males weigh slightly less.
The outstanding and easily recognized characteristic of a woodcock is its very long, slightly tapering bill. The bill is 2.5 inches long in males and 2.8 inches in females. The woodcock is awkward looking both on the ground and in the air because its long bill makes up 1/4 of its whole body length. The specially adapted bill is excellent for probing in wet soil for earthworms. A flexible tip on the upper bill allows the bird to grasp worms when it inserts its beak in the soil.
The woodcock's head is large in relation to its body and has eyes located high on the sides. This arrangement allows it to keep watch for predators while feeding. The ear is located directly under the eye. The neck is short and thick leading to a squat looking body with short tail feathers.
Adult coloration is similar for both sexes. The head, neck and breast plumage (feathers) are light cinnamon or buff with a grayish cast. The head is black with cinnamon colored bars. The mottled wings are cinnamon, buff, gray and black in color. Its bill, legs and feet are grayish-flesh color. The iris of its eye is dark brown.
This protective coloration hides woodcocks from their predators. When crouched on the forest floor, their overall mottled coloration blends with the forest debris of dead plants, soil and dried leaves.
American woodcocks breed throughout the eastern United States. The United States has three main breeding zones. New England and the Maritime Provinces of Canada form the Atlantic zone. The central zone includes Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Quebec, and southeastern Ontario. Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and rest of Ontario make up the western zone, which has the highest density of breeding birds.
Woodcocks spend the winter in the South Atlantic states if they live east of the Appalachians. Those living west of the Appalachians generally winter in the Gulf States. Population numbers in any particular location depend on the supply of earthworms which are the woodcock's main food. Habitats with very wet soil types and good earthworm supplies have higher woodcock populations than sites with less precipitation, good drainage and few or no earthworms.
Woodcock's habitat varies widely in type of plant life and plant or tree density. Each aspect of a woodcock's life requires a different habitat component.
Singing territory. Woodcock singing territories (or singing grounds) are open fields. They may be abandoned farm fields, freshly cleared land, pastureland, or forest areas which have been logged or burned. The ground cover consists of grasses, weeds, bushes, or small trees. The land is fairly flat with no more than a 25 degree slope. It is located near the male's daytime and nesting territory.
The male's courtship flight display and singing is carried out on the singing territory. This territory is used solely for courtship and mating and is defended from other male woodcocks. Females hide in the brush surrounding the male's territory, coming out only to mate. The size of the singing grounds may range from just a few hundred square feet to several acres.
Daytime habitat. The woodcock's diurnal (daytime) grounds are usually within 100 yards of the singing grounds. Aspen, alder and mixed deciduous forests are preferred for daytime cover. These forests need to have enough under story to provide the cover needed during daylight hours. Under story consists of small trees, bushes or other plants which grown underneath the larger trees in a forested area. Good woodcock habitat has both the preferred aspen forests and clearings which serve as the male's singing grounds.
Nesting habitat. Females nest up to 1/2 mile from the male's singing grounds. Females choose young, open woodland areas for nesting. The trees are usually under 25 feet tall. Aspen, Alder, Red maple, balsam fir, and birch are found in the woodcock's habitat. The main under story plants include bracken fern, brambles, goldenrod and blueberry. Grasses, dewberry, wintergreen, wild strawberry, and mayflowers are also common on sites chosen for nesting. Nesting sites are usually located on well-drained soils so the nest remains dry.
Brood habitat. Once the eggs have hatched, the females move their chicks to brood grounds. The typical ground cover is less dense that than found in nesting grounds, which facilitates the movements of young chicks. The young trees are typically taller, and closer together than those found in nesting grounds which help to provide overhead protection from predators. The soil moisture is greater which provides large numbers of earthworms and other small invertebrates (animals without a backbone) for the chicks to eat.
FOOD AND FEEDING BEHAVIOR
Worms are the woodcock's main food source. They also consume invertebrates such as beetle or fly larvae. They eat the seeds of sedges, violets, alder, raspberry, blackberry, cinquefoil, ragweed, bedstraw, smartweeds, elderberry, dogwoods and various grasses. Woodcocks also feed on cracked corn at bird feeders.
Feeding grounds must have adequate cover to protect woodcock from overhead predators. Various grasses and weeds such as cocklebur, smartweed, and fleabane are common on feeding grounds. Most grounds also have berry bushes, rose bushes and small trees such as dogwood, serviceberry, or Hawthorne.
Winter feeding grounds in the South Atlantic or Gulf Coast States are typically agricultural fields and bottomlands. Both corn and cotton fields are used for feeding after livestock have trampled the stalks and plant litter down. The wintering birds need large areas of damp or wet fields since they feed almost exclusively on earthworms during the winter months. Flocks of hundreds fly in to feeding fields from several miles away. They often feed from dusk until 11:00 p.m. when they take cover for the night.
Courtship. Courtship calls and flight display begin as soon as the male bird arrives on his breeding grounds in the spring. Woodcocks arrive at their northern breeding grounds in late March or early April. Females arrive several days after the males.
Courtship lasts for 40-50 minutes after sunset and before sunrise. The male typically gives peent calls (harsh, buzzing-like, nasal sounding) just before beginning his display flight. Wing twittering (a whistling caused by movement of the 3 primary wing feathers) occurs at the start of his ascent (flight upward).
The male starts his flight by flushing quickly from the ground and beginning a slow, steep circular climb until he is 200-300 feet off the ground. Then he descends back to the earth with a series of zig-zag like swoops made under high speed. He lands close to where his flight began. Musical, excited chirping (the flight song) accompanies the flight until he is just 30 or 50 feet from the ground when it ends abruptly.
Nearby, the female may give occasional peent calls after flying, silently, to the male's singing ground. She usually remains near the edge of the clearing where shrubbery offers some protection. The male mates with females attracted to his singing ground as soon as he lands. The female usually remains silent with the male making several approaches before the actual mating take place. The male approaches the female on stiff legs and raised wings. He mates and returns to his singing and flight displays. Mating only occurs on singing grounds. Males are promiscuous (mate with multiple females) with some even trying to mate with decoys.
Nesting. The nest itself is very simple. It usually is just a cup-like depression in the ground with a few twigs around its rim. It is so simple that it blends in with the debris on the forest floor. The female is extremely reluctant to leave her eggs. She will not flush from the nest unless predators are close at hand. Then she will do an injured bird act and attempt to lead the predator away from the nest. The female's camouflage coloring makes both her and the nest very difficult to find. Even researchers find most nests through a combination of intensive searching and sheer chance. The nest is often located at the base of a small tree or shrub. It is usually within 1/2 mile of the male's singing field.
The female lays one egg a day until the average clutch size of 4 is reached. The eggs are pinkish buff to cinnamon colored with small dark brown spots or splotches. She normally lays only one clutch each year. Incubation takes 20-21 days.
The entire clutch of eggs hatch within 24 hours, and the chicks leave the nest 1 day after hatching. Thus, the chicks are called precocial (high degree of independence at birth). The female takes them to areas of moist soil where they begin probing for earthworms. If anything disturbs the chicks during the fledgling stage, they automatically freeze in position which makes them difficult to detect. If a predator passes nearby, the female performs an injured wing act and tries to lead it away from her brood.
The chicks begin growing their primary wing feathers at 1 week of age and can fly by 3 weeks. They are full-grown at 4 weeks and can fly strongly. They remain with the female until 6-8 weeks when they become fully independent.
Woodcocks live an average of 10 months but those who survive their first summer may live up to 22 months. Woodcocks are not a long-lived bird species.
Voices. A tuko call (gurgling-like) is given by both males and females at the singing grounds. The Cac cac-cac-cac call (hoarse, scolding note) is used by a male chasing other males from its singing territory. Females, calling their brood together, utter a chur-chur call which is low pitched and nasal sounding. Females also give a call which resembles a squealing cat. It is very loud and startling to hear. A trapped female utters a loud quack-quack-quack call.
Chicks still under 5-6 weeks of age give a wheep call which is a high-pitched, whistlelike distress call. Both hens and chicks give a squeal call sounding like wheee. This frequently accompanies the female's broken wing act. Both sexes use a wick wick wick (like a flicker) when mildly alarmed. Woodcocks may give a keee call which resembles that of a hawk.
Spring. Woodcocks migrate north in the early spring. The actual timing of the migration is weather related. Migration begins anytime from February through April. Migrating birds travel primarily at night, at a leisurely speed. They make frequent stopovers of several days to feed as they travel.
Woodcocks migrate at a low altitude and usually travel as single birds. They may travel in small, loosely banded flocks. Woodcocks return to the same nesting grounds each year.
Fall. The annual fall migration begins after the first heavy frost. The birds feed in flocks as they travel. They usually start arriving on their winter feeding grounds in late November. The winter population peaks from December through January or mid-February depending on the severity of the winter cold.