By Joan Collins
One of my favorite nocturnal signs of spring is listening to the wild vocalizations and twittering displays of the male American woodcock in late March. It is the earliest migrant species to breed in northern New York. With seemingly countless nicknames—timberdoodle, bog sucker, night partridge, Labrador twister, big-eye, mud bat—you know they must be adored.
The American woodcock is a forest-dwelling shorebird species that nests in areas where it can readily find earthworms, its primary food source. It can be found in shrubby wet areas, bogs, along roads in shrubby areas bordering the edges of forests, wet meadows and in young forests with openings. It returns to our area in late March and migrates south in October, wintering in the southeastern United States.
Its appearance has been described as bizarre. The American woodcock is a plump bird that looks as if it has no neck or tail. Its huge, dark eyes are set far back and high on its head, giving it rearview binocular vision, helping it detect predators, an adaptation for crepuscular, or twilight, activity. It has a very long bill with a flexible upper mandible, an adaptation that allows it to capture and extract earthworms. With its leaf-brown plumage patterns, it blends into the forest floor, making it difficult to see unless it’s moving.
American woodcock behaviors are unique and comical to observe. It walks slowly on the ground and appears to be rocking or dancing up and down. Watch closely and you will see the woodcock pushing the ground with its front foot as it rocks back and forth, an action believed to make the worms move, increasing their detectability. The birds sense earthworms with their long bills, which they constantly use to probe the ground.
A unique behavior is the male’s display. It begins at twilight in an open spot, such as a grassy area or road. The male makes a loud “peent” call and then flies in a wide spiral several hundred feet in the air, making a twittering sound. As he descends, he makes chirping calls and lands in the same spot from where he launched. As a birder friend once described it, the bird appears to be sucked back down to the Earth. The twittering is a mechanical sound made by air passing through the bird’s three outer primary feathers, which are narrowed, allowing a whistling sound to be produced.
The American woodcock has a polygynous mating system. Males mate with multiple females and give no parental care.
In early May, the young birds leave the nest within a few hours of hatching. They follow the female in a line like ducklings. I was thrilled to see newly hatched American woodcocks one year on May 6 in Long Lake. The female was slowly walking across the road with that characteristic rocking motion, and a line of chicks, appearing as little rocking cotton balls, followed. A dump truck suddenly came from the other direction, and I stopped him from running them over. It took a while for them to cross the road.
Even so, their population has declined in the past 50 years due to forest succession and habitat loss from development. To prevent further population declines, their habitat will need to be preserved.
Woodcocks also face poisoning by lead, cadmium and other heavy metals through their diet of earthworms. In the Adirondacks, late heavy snowfalls in April can take a substantial toll on this ground species. One year, a bird ended up on someone’s Long Lake porch after two feet of snow fell. A rehabber took it in, but it was one-third its normal weight, and the bird didn’t survive.
I hope readers can experience the magical display flights of American woodcocks this spring.