Year of the Bird Series: February – American Woodcock

Editor’s Note: 100+ bird organizations declared 2018 the “Year of the Bird” as it is the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act’s ratification. Many are pledging to do 1 thing per month to help birds. As Ruthven Park National Historic Site has a bird banding station in collaboration with the Haldimand Bird Observatory, we are featuring one blog post per month on different birds! Below, you will find the second installment in this 12-part series.

Article by Christine Madliger, Post-Doctoral Researcher (University of Windsor and Carleton University)

On this cold and very snowy February day, I am choosing to look forward to spring with this month’s ‘Year of the Bird’ entry – the American Woodcock (Scolopax minor). Starting as early as March, those with a keen ear can find this bizarre shorebird working to impress potential mates at the edges of woodlands. At dawn and dusk, males perform elaborate aerial “sky dances” that feature spiraling flights, melodious chirps, twittering wings, and zig-zagging descents. While on the ground, males can also be easily identified by their buzzing “peent” call, which can be heard on The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website.

The American Woodcock has captured the hearts of many bird-lovers and is known colloquially as the timberdoodle, Labrador twister, night partridge, and bog sucker, depending on where you travel. Aldo Leopold, whose natural history writings helped spark the conservation movement of the mid-twentieth century, was mesmerized himself and wrote that the woodcock’s flight display is “a refutation of the theory that the utility of a game bird is to serve as a target, or to pose gracefully on a slice of toast.”

Apart from the boisterous courtship period, the likelihood of spotting a woodcock is relatively low. They are extremely well-camouflaged, nesting on the ground and blending in spectacularly with the surrounding leaf litter due to their brown, mottled feathers. If you do manage to get a close look, you will likely notice that the bird’s eyes are positioned in a peculiar way. They sit high and far back on their head, giving them a slightly goofy looking appearance. However, this arrangement gives the bird rear-view binocular vision – they can easily keep an eye out for predators at all angles, including in the sky, while they are foraging for food on the ground.

 

(tip: click on each photo above to enlarge it for a closer look)

The bill of the American Woodcock is also unique. It is long for probing in the soil, with the upper half being flexible to allow for easy capture of earthworms. Interestingly, the birds will often place their weight heavily on their leading foot while walking. This may be a tactic to create vibrations in the soil to cause earthworms to move, and there is speculation that the woodcock hears the motion, allowing them to better locate their wriggly prey. The probing behaviour they exhibit during feeding reminds you that they are indeed a type of shorebird, despite having no desire to nest or forage near water.

Unlike many migratory birds who are facing declines due to human-driven changes to their habitats, this species may actually be expanding its range because of human activity. The shrubland and young forest that regrows after harvest of northern coniferous forests is ideal breeding habitat for woodcocks. As harvesting continues, this species will likely have opportunities to occupy new areas north and west of its range.

While this species is not often captured by the mist nets used at banding labs, Ruthven has been lucky enough to band a few. Also, a couple of years ago while setting up a net for the coming spring banding season, banders accidentally spooked a nesting woodcock and discovered she was brooding newly hatched chicks. This occurred in mid-April, meaning that the female had been sitting on the nest for over three weeks, enduring the frigid temperatures and snowfalls of early spring.

This March, consider taking a walk at sunrise or sunset near a local woodlot; you just might get to see the sky dance of North America’s most quirky shorebird.