All About the American Woodcock
- 27 Aug, 2021
The American woodcock, Scolopax minor, is a unique upland game bird species that actually falls in the shorebird family. Woodcock can be found primarily east of the Great Plains, and the most substantial breeding populations exist in the upper Midwest and Northeast. Throughout time, people and cultures have nicknamed this bird a variety of quirky monikers, like timberdoodle, mudbat, and bogsucker, just to name a few.
The woodcock diet is comprised almost entirely of insect matter, primarily earthworms when available. Some data shows that a woodcock can eat its body weight in earthworms daily. The long bill is used to probe moist soil for earthworms and also used to detect vibrations caused by prey items in the environment. Other interesting aspects of the woodcock’s anatomy include its set-back eyes, which allow it to look for predators while its bill is probing the soil, and also that is ears are set in front of its eyes (a personal woodcock fun fact of mine)!
Woodcock habitat is typically young, thick forest cover with moist soil to allow the bird to probe for insects. I often find woodcock in thick forests near streams, but have also come across them in more upland habitat. In addition to the young, thick forests, woodcock will utilize old fields and clearings. This is especially true in the springtime when they use open habitats to perform mating rituals during breeding season. Male woodcock fly up into the air and then spiral down while making a distinct call. If you get the chance to observe this interesting woodcock habit in the spring, it’s definitely worth seeing.
Old field habitat in the central Midwest, typical of what breeding and/or migrating woodcock would use in that region.
After breeding, females nest and hatch out a brood. Like other shorebird species such as killdeer, a disturbed woodcock mother will flush from the nest site and feign injury, flapping like she’s hurt to make a predator believe it has found an easy meal. This behavior is meant to lure potential threats as far away from her vulnerable chicks as possible. This spring, I flushed a female woodcock and watched her exhibit this behavior, so I stopped and looked down, where a tiny newly hatched chick sat just inches from my boots.
Woocock chicks are very well camouflaged.
Woodcock chicks fledge quickly and are fairly independent by 4 weeks of age. Some states use a citizen science program where bird dogs and their handlers are trained to locate woodcock nests in the springtime, and then band the chicks. Using well-trained bird dogs is a great way to efficiently locate nests and gather data on woodcock migration and survival.
Where they live, woodcock are a popular game bird for hunters to pursue. Certainly in the Upper Midwest and northeast where woodcock breed and spend the summer, and they are often hunted in conjunction with ruffed grouse in those areas. Once they start their migration, woodcock can be hunted south down to their wintering grounds as far west as Texas. Woodcock migrate primarily at night, with short little flights and often in groups.
Woodcock behavior when hunted is different from other species of upland game bird. They are notorious for holding very still and you probably won’t even know a bird is there until you nearly step on it and flush it. Their flight patterns are pretty erratic, and when they flush they go straight up and head for the canopy, before landing again not too far away. For woodcock hunting, a more open choke like a cylinder or improved cylinder is best, with smaller shot size like 6, 7 or 8. There is a pretty good chance you will need to shoot through some dense cover so keep that in mind as well.
Woodcock offer some follow up opportunities for shooting since they have a tendency to stay relatively close after flushing. Hunting this species with a dog is helpful, but they can be hunted without a dog as well. The most difficult part of hunting woodcock without a dog is finding the downed bird since it blends in so well with the cover. Getting eyes on the bird and watching exactly where it falls is so important; their ability to camouflage even when dead is truly remarkable.
Woodcock are a unique North American species that, even if you don’t plan to hunt them, are a very fun bird to observe. Just do a YouTube search for woodcock walking/calls put to music, and you’ll see what I mean. If you do harvest some of these birds, there are plenty of good recipes available to try. Keep an eye out next time you’re in a dense, moist forest or old field in the spring in the Midwest/Northeast and there’s a good chance you will come across one of these quirky, interesting birds.
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