Behold the Timberdoodle

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.

You can see how camouflaged this American Woodcock would be against the leaf litter, making it virtually impossible to spot. Notice also how far back its eyes are on its head. Photo by guizmo_68, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Published by Jim Sirch

Jim Sirch is the author of Beyond Your Back Door, a weekly blog about nature in your neighborhood. He is also Education Coordinator for the Yale Peabody Museum, a UConn Master Gardener and board member of his local land trust. As a trained naturalist, he brings a deep understanding of geology, plants and wildlife and how they interact within a particular ecosystem. He holds a B.S in Forestry from West Virginia University, a B.S. from Miami University in Science Education; and an M.S. in Environmental Studies Administration from Antioch University. He is also the 2014 Sigmund Abeles Award recipient from the Connecticut Science Teachers and Supervisors Association for outstanding science teaching and professional development.

9 thoughts on “Behold the Timberdoodle

  1. The only time in my life that I’ve seen a woodcock was many years ago while waiting for a bus in New Haven at College and George Streets. One flew down and landed on the sidewalk near the road — it was so unusual looking, and I had no clue what it was, but when I got home I immediately looked it up. There was no mistaking it for any other bird! Perhaps it was during migration? Otherwise I can’t imagine why it would be in that area of New Haven. I will never forget it!

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    1. Hi Liz, sounds to me like you saw one that was migrating. During migration and particularly with storms, they can end up in interesting places, though usually for a brief period. Thx, Jim

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  2. Thank you, Jim. Why do we need to manage timberlands when most nonhuman animals mainly evolved long before humans did. Even well-meaning human interventions frequently end up making things worse.

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    1. Hi Susanne, this is a great question. Long ago, our forests were “managed” by nature. Storms and fire helped provide different-aged stands of forests with small gaps that provided woodcock nesting and displaying habitat. Now we have development, habitat fragmentation, fire suppression, overpopulation of white-tailed deer (who overbrowse new growth and help cause even-aged stands) and invasive species. All of these caused by humans. Unfortunately today in most situations we can’t just let go and we need to manage our forests and other habitats for biodiversity. Best, Jim

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  3. Excellent info and greatly amusing video/music!
    Had them in our back yard back in 80s regular displaying but gone.

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