As a migratory bird, the American woodcock lives in the North during spring and summer but spends the cold months in the South. Although a few from the farthest regions may wait out an exceptionally mild winter in some states along the way, most woodcock will continue the journey south to traditional wintering grounds. The bird's primary breeding range takes in southern Canada, Maine and the Great Lakes region, dropping down as far as central West Virginia. The woodcock's wintering range includes Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas.
Woodcock migrate at altitudes of about 50 feet, flying at night and resting or feeding in secluded thickets during the day. The birds travel alone or in loose flocks called "flights." Migration usually peaks in late October and early November in more northern areas, but the process sometimes starts as early as September and lasts until the end of November. With the coming of autumn, strong northwest winds and cold nights push large numbers of woodcock south. Woodcock migration activity levels can viewed and entered on the RGS National Woodcock Migration Mapping System and a new research study of individualwoodcock migration (best viewed in Firefox or Chrome) was started in 2014.
There are two major woodcock populations in North America, with each inhabiting a separate region: the Eastern Region is from the Appalachian Mountains east; and the Central Region is from west of the Appalachians to the Great Plains.
The American woodcock (Scolopaxminor) is known by a host of colloquial names, the most common being timberdoodle. Other colorful nicknames include Labrador twister, bogsucker and mudsnipe.
Woodcock are about the size of robins, and their plumage is an overall mottled russet or brown. Males and females are similar in appearance, although females generally average a bit heavier than males -- 7.6 ounces vs. 6.2 ounces -with the weight of each sex varying depending on the time of year. For drawings and more details to determine sex and age, please refer to the publication, A Woodcock in the Hand and the YouTube video American Woodcock Society - Aging and Sexing American Woodcock.
The bird's bill, which appears too long for its body, is used to probe rich soils for earthworms. Eyes are large, set well back and high on the sides of a timberdoodle's head. Naturalists have speculated that this positioning lets the bird look to all sides while it probes for food. Nostrils are located high on the bill, close to the skull. A woodcock's ears are ahead of its eyes, between the base of the bill and the eye sockets.
The brain of an American woodcock is unique among birds. The cerebellum, which controls muscle coordination and body balance, is below the rest of the brain and above the spinal column. (In most birds, the cerebellum occupies the rear of the skull.) One theory holds that as the woodcock evolved: the eyes moved back in the skull, the bill lengthened and the nostrils approached the base of the bill, allowing for enhanced ground-probing abilities (see video below). As a result, the brain was rearranged, and the modern bird, in essence, has an upside-down one.
Earthworms provide about 60 percent of the bird's diet. The worms are high in fat and protein, they provide the necessary nutrients to help keep woodcock healthy and strong. An additional 30 percent of a woodcock diet consists of insects such as ants, flies, beetles, crickets, caterpillars, grasshoppers and various larvae. They've also been known to eat crustaceans, millipedes, centipedes and spiders.
Woodcock primarily feed in early evening and just before dawn. Because they have a quick digestive system, an adult woodcock may eat its weight in worms every day.
When woodcock flush, air passes through their rapidly beating wings and produces a trilling or whistling sound. The birds usually flutter up out of cover, level off and fly for distances ranging from ten to several hundred yards before setting down.
During the mating season, a male timberdoodle on the ground will sound a nasal, buzzing insect-like note usually described as a peent. Preceding each peent is a two-syllable gurgling note known as a tuko. While the peent carries several hundred yards, the much softer tuko is audible up to about 10 yards from the bird.
Some examples of the different woodcock sounds include: the flight song -- a series of liquid, gurgling chirps -- which is sounded on the wing by a male trying to attract a mate, while a male defending his breeding territory against another male calls cac-cac-cac-cac as he flies toward his rival. A female will squeal and often feign a broken wing to lure intruders away from her young. In the spring, males establish territories known as singing grounds, where they can perform the flight song and a ground display. While on the ground, a male peents to attract females. He next takes off to ascend 200 or 300 feet on twittering wings. Then, sounding his liquid chirps, he spirals downward. Displays and mating occur during short periods at dawn and dusk, usually from early March to mid-May when temperatures are above freezing and winds are calm. Checkout the Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds page on American woodcock. Great audio of a peenting and displaying male and the above video of a bird probing for worms. Annual list of Woodcock Walks where you may hear and see the 'sky dance'.
Males may mate with several different females during the mating season. They play no role in nest selection, incubation or rearing of the young.
Although in the more southern areas, woodcock no doubt at times nest earlier, they usually nest from early March into June. A typical timberdoodle nest is a slight depression on the ground among some dead leaves. A female lays one egg a day until she completes the normal clutch of four. The eggs, which are oval, have a slight gloss to them and may vary from a pinkish buff to cinnamon with brown blotches and darker speckling.
The incubation process takes 19 to 22 days. It begins after the last egg is laid. The eggs hatch at approximately the same time. If a hen is disturbed early in the incubation period, she may abandon the nest. The longer she sits on the eggs, however, the less likely are the chances she'll desert them. Toward the end of incubation, she may even stay on the nest when touched by a human hand.
Nest predators include domestic dogs and cats, snakes, skunks, opossums, raccoons and crows. Natural disasters, such as fires and flooding, can also destroy a woodcock nest. Hens that lose their first clutch may nest again, often laying only three eggs.
Eggs hatch from early April until mid-June, with the hatch normally peaking by May across the woodcock breeding range. When the clutch starts to hatch, the eggs split lengthwise as the chicks begin to emerge.
American woodcock chicks are precocial, meaning they are able to leave the nest within a few hours after hatching. They are covered with fine down -- pale brownish to buff with brown spots, stripes above and rufous below. A dark line runs from the bill back to the eyes.
From the day they hatch, chicks learn to "freeze" when threatened or in response to hearing the hen's alarm call. During the first few days, the hen broods her chicks frequently, especially during inclement weather.
Chicks grow rapidly feeding on a high-protein diet of insects and earthworms. After two weeks, they can fly short distances. And at the end of four weeks, they're almost fully grown. Not only are they flying strongly, but they have almost reached their adult size and weight. The family breaks up when the chicks are six to eight weeks old.
Adult woodcock molt during the summer. As fall arrives, timberdoodles start heading south for the winter.
Compared to most other game birds, woodcock have a low potential productivity. A female raises only one brood a year, consisting of three or four young. Fortunately, the species has a high nesting success rate -- 60 to 75 percent -- and low juvenile mortality.
Population densities vary in any one locale. American woodcock may be scattered, concentrated or absent depending on the time of year, weather conditions or habitat. In autumn, for instance, collective "flights" of woodcock may not accurately reflect the carrying capacity of an area where they're found because the birds may simply be passing through.
Their population can fluctuate greatly over the years. Steady human encroachment on moist woodland, timber maturation, and flooding pose threats to the species. Mortality factors include predation, accidents (many occurring during night flight), hunting, disease, parasites and bad weather. Woodcock that migrate north too early may be caught in late-season snows or freezing cold, which seal off their food supply.
If a timberdoodle reaches adulthood, its life expectancy is about 1.8 years. However, banded birds have been recovered in the wild at 7 years of age.
Habitat requirements for American woodcock change throughout the year. Woodcock are attracted to moist, young forests and require a young, dense woodland to provide ample cover and food resources. They tend to use edges rather than the interior of big, even-age thickets.
During both migrations, they need sufficient food resources and layover sites. Courtship sites in spring consist of forest clearings, abandoned fields spotted with low brush or open fields next to forest edges. Sites vary in size, but a quarter of an acre seems to provide adequate space for the courtship ritual. Favored nesting habitat includes damp woods near water, hillsides above moist bottomlands, old fields with low ground cover, briar patches, the edges of shrub thickets and young conifer stands. Nesting habitat is also young, open, second growth woodlands, generally within 90 meters of a singing ground. Adequate spots for brood rearing are similar, but during the first few weeks areas with bare ground or dense ground cover are avoided. Large fields for roosting are also required. Finally, winter habitat must be well stocked with various foodstuffs and provide necessary shelter.
Without quality habitat, timberdoodles will seek more suitable sites or their populations will decline. As the cover matures, different tree species take over and the habitat becomes less attractive to woodcock.
Videos on the Maryland Wildlife Habitat Seminar page deal with American woodcock. Look especially for Parts 1 and 2 of Ecology and Management of American Woodcock & RGS Projects and Parts 1 and 2 of American Woodcock Conservation Plan & Appalachian Mountain Woodcock Initiative.
In an effort to address declining habitat favorable for American woodcock and 50 other wildlife species that benefit from similar habitat, The American Woodcock Conservation Plan was published in 2008, by the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies' Woodcock Task Force which included the Wildlife Management Institute (WMI) and partner agencies and organizations. This plan called for launching four regional habitat initiatives in the primary breeding range of the American woodcock. WMI announced the first progress report in early July 2010, entitled Implementing the American Woodcock Conservation Plan: Progress to Date, June 2010. Additional information about American woodcock, the Conservation Plan, and the regional initiatives is available at www.timberdoodle.org.
Related to the Conservation Plans goals, states are creating their own plans. Wisconsin created the Wisconsin All-Bird Conservation Plan - American Woodcock as a project of the state-wide Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative (WBCI). Read the Pennsylvania plan here. Maryland incorporated theirs into the Maryland Wildlife Diversity Conservation Plan under Early Successional Forests. Indiana created an American Woodcock fact sheet. Links to other states will be added when available.
Shrubs and trees can be planted, or if they already grow in a given area, it's an option to periodically harvest large trees, which may be shading brush or stunting the growth of younger trees. Periodic regeneration of maturing alder and aspen or other hardwood stands -- through cutting or controlled burns -- will result in a renewed, healthier habitat for not only woodcock but many other forest wildlife species.
The goal is to provide a diverse-age forest canopy. A lush, thick area of shrub or tree growth that is exposed to full sunlight is one of the best habitats because a variety of food supplies and shelter will be available. But it's necessary to take an active role in managing these areas, or they may no longer contain the wildlife species we hold so dear.
Established in 1961, the Ruffed Grouse Society is North America's foremost conservation organization dedicated to preserving our sporting traditions by creating healthy forest habitat for ruffed grouse, American woodcock and other wildlife. RGS works with landowners and government agencies to develop critical habitat utilizing scientific management practices.
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