The American Woodcock

by: Julie Towers
Date of Post: July 2003

Sky dancers. Timberdoodles. Pop-eyed shot dodgers. These are just a few of many nicknames for a unique forest shorebird, the American woodcock (Scolopax minor).

My graduate supervisor introduced me to woodcock on a spring night in northern New Brunswick. Walking quietly down a logging trail, we heard whistling overhead. "Get down," urged Dan. Well, I did. Right onto a sharp stick. Despite the pain, and the torn pants, I was entranced by the courtship display of a small, plump bird. A woodcock had landed on the grass between some young spruce and fir trees, and had begun calling with a nasal "peent". . . "peent." Soon, the hopeful male lifted upward to continue its sky dance.

Over the years, I have watched and read about these special birds. Woodies look like other shorebirds, but inhabit upland areas. Their mottled brown, beige and golden feathers allow them to blend into dead leaves on the forest floor. Narrow bills over 6 cm (2.36 in) in length permit long bills to probe deeply into soil for their food. The specialized, flexible bill tip can open underground for grabbing worms (50 to 90 percent of their diet) and insect larvae (beetles and flies). Large eyes adapted for dim light are set well back on the head and provide a wide view of approaching predators such as goshawks, coyotes or humans. Any adaptation that helps the birds to spot predators will help, because male woodcock draw a lot of attention during spring courtship displays. One researcher studying woodcock in Maine found three radio transmitters and two leg bands in just one goshawk nest, the only remains of some conspicuous local sky dancers.

Labrador twisters breed in the northeastern states and provinces, as far north as the Gaspé Peninsula and Newfoundland. Male woodcock arrive in Nova Scotia in March, often while there is still snow on the ground. From March until early June, males perform courtship flights over openings known as "singing grounds." Abandoned farm fields, regenerating clearcuts, blueberry fields or other openings are used. Each flight lasts up to a minute, alternating with "peenting" calls from the ground. Males will display for up to an hour at dusk and dawn, or through the night if there is a full moon.

In April, females nest near the singing grounds. After three weeks of incubation, four eggs hatch into downy chicks that are ready to follow their mother. Chicks can fly short distances by two weeks of age, are almost fully grown at four weeks, and are independent by summer. All ages and sexes of bogsuckers feed in rich, moist soils full of earthworms under alders and second growth forest. Around the first heavy frosts in October, and continuing into November, woodcock migrate to the southeastern states for the winter. Interestingly, young birds tend to follow the coastline south, while adults migrate further inland.

Some woodcock nicknames, such as pop-eyed shot dodgers and Labrador twisters, reflect why the birds are highly valued by hunters. Woodcock have a significant advantage over humans. An unnamed author writing in a 1975 issue of Field and Stream described their flight as "the shortest distance between two points which includes two zigs, a zag and at least one drastic change in altitude." Woodcock will freeze when a hunting dog points them, allowing a hunter to approach very closely. Then they erupt, often directly upwards like a miniature helicopter, and zoom off over the top of alder shrubs while a hunter can't even swing a gun barrel in the tangle of stems. Woodcock don't even fly the same way twice, making them hard targets to shoot.

On the odd occasion when one can actually shoot a woodcock, the meat is very tasty. Although I can still hear a friend after a day of woodcock hunting asking, "is that the entire breast?" Visiting from Manitoba, he was used to large, grain-fed mallard ducks from prairie potholes, birds that weigh in at 1.2 kg (2.6 lb.) versus woodcock at 150 to 200 grams (5 to 7 oz.)!

Throughout their range, woodcock populations have been slowly but steadily declining at a rate just under 2.5 percent per year since the 1960's. Biologists with Canadian and American federal, provincial, and state wildlife agencies track woodcock numbers by annual spring singing ground counts, an index of the number of breeding males from year to year; wing returns from hunters, an index of harvest numbers and breeding success the previous spring; and hunter questionnaires which provide an index of the annual harvest level.

Despite shorter hunting seasons and reduced bag limits, populations continued to drop through the 70's and 80's. A loss of suitable habitat for courtship, nesting and feeding with changing land uses appeared to be a major factor. Recent studies have also examined high lead levels discovered in woodcock wings.

Luckily, in Nova Scotia the decline has only been 0.3 per cent per year. Suitable habitats of alders, farmlands, blueberry fields and forest cuts exist in much of the province outside urban areas. Hunting pressure is low, with only about 400 successful hunters each year taking between 2500 to 4000 birds.

So whether you prefer to watch woodcock during their spring sky dance or hunt them in autumn, or both, there are many of these amazing birds in this province. I'll be out with my dog this October (named Alder for the spots where we hunt woodcock), and crouched in a field or cut edge next spring to watch these unique birds in action. Sky dancers. Timberdoodles. Wild woodcock . . .