Labrador Twister. Bogsucker. Mudsnipe. Hokumpoke. Timberdoodle. These are just some of the colorful names for the American Woodcock (Scolopax minor), a robin-sized, inland shorebird whose courtship displays, unknown to most of us, are an amazing spring phenomenon. It’s now time to listen for them.
Newly arrived from its wintering grounds in the southern United States, now (mid-March through the beginning of April) in Connecticut is the time to check out the males’ courting grounds. Prime courting habitats are fields with scattered mixed shrubs or open fields near woodlands, particularly near wetlands. A good way to find woodcocks is to go to a good habitat at dusk and listen for the male’s nasal, buzzy “peent.” If you listen closely, you can hear a gurgling note before the “peent” call.
But that’s just the beginning. If you spot him, you’ll see the male then spiral upward, with a fast twittering sound caused by the air going through his three primary feathers. As the bird drops rapidly to the ground, he’ll make a loud, chirping, “kissing” sound along with the twittering. This chirping or “kissing” is done vocally. He is silent when landing. He’ll begin again if he has not been successful in attracting a female. This display will continue for a half hour to an hour.
After mating, the female will lay one buff-colored, brown-blotched egg per day (for an average of four), typically in a depression among dead leaves. Incubation takes 19 to 22 days. When the young hatch, they are precocial, able to walk within few hours. They soon learn to freeze when they hear their mom’s alarm call. They grow quickly and can fly short distances after only a few short weeks.
The timberdoodle has evolved some fascinating adaptations. It has a mottled, tawny, camouflaged brown coloration with a “deaf leaf pattern” that is almost impossible to see when the bird is motionless. Its squat body has an extra-long bill, perfect for probing the ground for earthworms, about 60% of its diet. A woodcock can eat up to its weight in earthworms in a day! These birds also eat crustaceans, grasshoppers, beetles, caterpillars, and more.
Woodcocks often “strut” when walking. It has been theorized that stepping heavily while bobbing back and forth causes earthworms to move, signaling the location of potential prey. I got a chuckle when someone set a video of this bobbing to funk music.
Most people think of a bird beak as being hard, but the American Woodcock’s bill is flexible at the tip and can open to grab earthworms even while probing the ground. Why have such a long bill on a small body? One theory is that, through time, the bill lengthened, the eyes moved more to the sides of the head, and the nostrils moved closer to the base of the bill, all to enhance its probing ability.
In some years, woodcocks arrive from wintering grounds only to experience late snow and ice storms. These weather events prevent them from finding food, leading to population losses. They are also particularly vulnerable to habitat changes. Steadily increasing urbanization as well as the maturing of forests are causing a decline in American Woodcock populations. And free-roaming domestic cats kill millions of ground-nesting birds like woodcocks every year.
It is vital that our forests be managed for trees in a range of different age classes to encourage wildlife diversity. A diverse woodland with sections exposed to full sunlight provides one of the best habitats for food and shelter. Active management of these habitats will enable the continued survival of wildlife like these unique birds, which deserve their place in our landscape.