“Knowing the place and the hour, you seat yourself under a bush to the east of the dance floor and wait, watching against the sunset for the woodcock’s arrival. He flies in low from some neighboring thicket, alights on the bare moss, and at once be gins the overture: a series of queer throaty peents spaced about two seconds apart, and sounding much like the summer call of the nighthawk.”
Aldo Leopold penned these words sometime in the late 1930s, and he later included them as part of the essay Sky Dance in his classic book A Sand County Almanac. Leopold thrilled to the mating display of the American woodcock as a herald of spring, and he and his family spent hours each year enjoying the ornithological show. This fascinating bird still gives nightly performances each spring, and those willing to invest some time and don a jacket are rewarded with a memorable experience in Missouri’s outdoors.
The woodcock is an odd bird and largely unknown to most citizens. Its camouflage colors and secretive nature allow it to go undetected, even though it may be living just outside your backdoor. Let’s take a look at this bird’s unique behaviors and adaptations. Once you know more about the woodcock, I think you’ll want to witness the sky dance for yourself.
If you’ve looked at an American woodcock and thought, “that looks like a shorebird,” you’re right. Woodcock belong to the same family (Scolopacidae) as the sandpipers, phalaropes, and snipe, but they have evolved to occupy upland habitats rather than shorelines. If you’ve ever spent time watching shorebirds forage, you know most of them have rather long bills with which they probe the mud looking for food. The most striking feature of the woodcock is its long, narrow bill. Woodcock use their bills to probe moist soil in search of earthworms, their primary food. But that’s no ordinary bill. Woodcock have a prehensile, or grasping, tip on their bills, allowing it to be opened even when inserted deep into the ground. Along with their unique bill structure, woodcock have another unusual adaptation to a life spent probing the soil: their eyes are set far back on their heads to allow the bird to detect danger while foraging.
The muted browns, tans, and black feathers offer the woodcock excellent concealment, but their feather structure is also important. Because woodcock spend most of their time in young sapling stands and dense, brushy cover, they have developed short, powerful wings that allow them to maneuver expertly through tangles of limbs and vines. The three outermost primary feathers on the wings are narrower than the others, and they produce the twittering sound characteristic of woodcock flight.
Woodcock Research — Which Way Did They Go?
Understanding the habitats and travel corridors migrating birds use is difficult. For over 40 years, biologists have used radio telemetry to study movements and habitat use of numerous wildlife species. But the transmitters attached to birds have a pretty limited range, and once migration begins, the radioed bird quickly flies out of range. But recent GPS technology is allowing researchers to follow birds along their route. Dr. David Krementz and his students at the University of Arkansas have been studying the migratory behavior and habitat use of woodcock using traditional VHF radio transmitters coupled with newer GPS transmitters.
Research work in the 1950s and ‘60s suggested that woodcock mostly followed the Mississippi River, but Dr. Krementz’s work indicates that may no longer be the case. He and his students speculate that loss of bottomland hardwood habitats along the Mississippi River may have prompted a shift in migration routes, and woodcock now migrate across Missouri, often using upland hardwoods as stopovers during their journeys. In particular, tracked birds indicate the Show-Me state has important stopover habitats in the River Hills area of northeast Missouri and around Truman Lake in west central Missouri. To view the migration routes used by transmittered birds, go to ruffedgrousesociety.org/woodcockmigration.
Migration, Courtship, and Nesting
Woodcock are migratory, and may fly several hundred miles at a time as they move from their wintering grounds in the Gulf Coast states and southern Appalachians to breeding areas in the upper Midwest and Great Lakes regions. Among the earliest spring migrants, it’s not unusual for these birds to arrive on their northern breeding grounds while snow still blankets the ground. Individual woodcock are also strongly drawn to the area where they were hatched, a characteristic biologists call “natal site fidelity.” Upon arrival in their breeding area, male woodcock begin their courtship displays. As long as temperatures are above freezing, males will move to open fields or forest openings at dawn and dusk to perform their courtship rituals. Their display begins with the buzzy call described above. After issuing his call note, the male woodcock takes to the air, flying in a series of wide spirals as his wings make a rolling twittering sound.
After ascending to a height of several hundred feet, the twittering suddenly ceases, and he tumbles from the sky, almost as if crippled. Then, just as you’re sure he’s about to crash, the bird levels off and flutters back to the place where he began. Within a few seconds, he calls again and the spectacle repeats. These displays often last 40 to 50 minutes, during which time the male will make about a dozen courtship flights, each lasting about 45 to 60 seconds. Under sufficient moonlight, males may continue their courtship flights periodically throughout the night.
Female woodcock attend the evening performance as well, though they are much less conspicuous. Hens may visit as many as three different males per evening, and often more than one hen visits a singing male on any given night. After mating, hens lay an average of four eggs in a leaf nest on the ground, usually in a stand of early-growth hardwood trees. Incubation lasts 21 days, but if her clutch is lost, hens readily re-nest. Hens continue to visit males’ singing grounds during incubation, presumably to ensure she is ready to re-nest quickly if her nest is predated or otherwise lost. Woodcock have a very strong homing instinct to nest near the site where they were hatched, so nesting areas continue to attract woodcock year after year if good habitat conditions remain.
Woodcock chicks are precocial, meaning they hatch feathered, with their eyes open, and ready to leave the nest immediately. Their diet of invertebrates — worms, grubs, and bugs — is high in protein and fuels rapid growth. By day 18, woodcock chicks can make short flights, and at four to five weeks they make long, sustained flights and soon after disperse from the brooding area.
With the coming of autumn, woodcock begin their southward migration. Though a few will begin their journey in September, migration mostly occurs in October and November, when large numbers migrate with approaching cold fronts on strong northerly winds. Woodcock are low flyers, cruising at a height of about 50 feet. Strong fall migratory pulses can literally fill habitats overnight as the birds settle into brushy cover to feed and rest.
Harbinger of Spring
If you’re experiencing a serious case of cabin fever after a long winter spent indoors, why not witness the sky dance for yourself? Woodcock can be found advertising their presence by late February in southern Missouri, and by March they should be giving regular performances across the state. Find a brushy area and get outside right at dusk and listen for the buzzy peent call of a male woodcock. Once you’ve found a good area, pack along a lawn chair, a blanket, and maybe a thermos of hot chocolate and just sit quietly. It really is quite a show, and a sure sign that spring is not far off!
- All-you-can-eat buffet? Woodcock have a very rapid digestive process and often eat their weight in earthworms in a single day.
- Right brain, left brain, upside-down brain? Woodcock are unique among the bird world for having a brain that’s essentially upside down. Scientists believe this is due to the fact that they spend so much time with their head down, probing the ground for food.
- A bird by any other name? Woodcock are known by a variety of other names, including timberdoodle, bogsucker, brush snipe, night partridge, hill partridge, and hokumpoke.