Familiar Birds Home Page

  Home   About Us   Mission   Sources   E-mail Us
  Index   Contents

 Life Histories 

  Appendix   Links

A chapter from the electronic book:  Life Histories of Familiar North American Birds

American Woodcock
Scolopax minor  

[Published in 1927: Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 142 (Part 1): 61-78]

This mysterious hermit of the alders, this recluse of the boggy thickets, this wood nymph of crepuscular habits is a common bird and well distributed in our Eastern States, widely known, but not intimately known. Its quiet retiring habits do not lead to human intimacy. It may live almost in our midst unnoticed. Its needs are modest, its habit is circumscribed, and it clings with tenacity to its favorite haunts even when closely encroached upon by civilization. The banks of a stream running through my place, close to the heart of the city, were once famous woodcock covers in which the birds persisted long after the surroundings were built up; and even within recent years I have had a pair of woodcocks living in the shrubbery along the stream for a week or two at a time.

Who knows where to look for woodcocks? Their haunts are so varied that one may not be surprised to find them almost anywhere, especially on migrations. Flight birds are here today and gone tomorrow. Their favorite resorts are alder thickets along the banks of meandering streams or spring-fed boggy runs; rich bottom lands or scrubby hollows, overgrown with willows, maples, alders, and poison sumac; or the scrubby edges of damp, second-growth woods, mixed with birches; any such place will suit them where they can find moist soil, not too wet or too sour, well supplied with earthworms. During the hot, sultry weather of July and August, the molting season, they seek the seclusion of cool, moist, leafy woods or dense thickets; or they may resort to the cool hillside or mountain bogs, fed by cool springs; or, if the weather is very dry, they may be found in the wet grassy meadows, Woodcocks do not like too much water and, after heavy rains, they may be driven from their usual covers to well-drained hillsides, sparsely covered with small birches, maples, locusts, and cedars. Sometimes they are found on the tops of mountains; George B. Sennett (1887) saw a pair on the top of Roan Mountain in North Carolina, at an elevation of 6,000 feet, "in a clump of balsams; the overflow from numerous springs which had their sources at this spot formed an open, adjoining marsh of several acres."

Woodcocks often appear in unexpected places, such as city parks, yards, gardens, orchards, or even lawns. John T. Nichols writes to me:

A neighbor (Mr. W. S. Dana) called for me at about 10 o'clock in the morning of a sparklingly clear, rather cool summer's day, to show me a woodcock that was feeding on his lawn, which slopes down to an almost fresh water arm of Moriches Bay. We found the bird still busily engaged where he had left it. It was out in the bright sunlight, crouched, walking about slowly but cautiously. It held its body in an unsteady wavering manner, and was picking and digging about the roots of the short grass stubble, apparently obtaining some food too small for us to determine. The piece of lawn where the bird was operating was low and flat, adjacent to the edge of the water where protected by a low bulkhead. The ground was slightly moist, perhaps from seepage, which may have accounted for its presence. It was remarkably unsuspicious, allowing us to crawl within 2 or 3 yards, before flying back to alight under the shade of near-by trees; but was a full-grown bird, strong on the wing.

I have, more than once, seen a woodcock crouching in the short grass beside a country road, quite unconcerned as I drove past. I have frequently seen one in my yard about the shrubbery and I remember seeing my father stand on his front piazza and shoot one that was standing under an arborvitae hedge. Most cornfields are often favorite resorts for woodcocks in summer.

Spring.--The woodcock is the first of our waders to migrate north and one of the earliest of all our migrants, coming with the bluebirds and the robins, as soon as winter has begun to loosen its grip. The date depends on the weather and is very variable, for the bird must wait for a thaw to unlock its food supply in the bogs and spring holes. Walter H. Rich (1907) has known the woodcock to arrive in Maine as early as February 10, and says that early birds find a living about the big ant hills, until the alder covers are ready for them.

In Audubon's (1840) time the migration must have been very heavy, for he says:

At the time when the woodcocks are traveling from the south toward all parts of the United States, on their way to their breeding places, these birds, although they migrate singly, follow each other with such rapidity, that they may be said to arrive in flocks, the one coming directly in the wake of the other. This is particularly observable by a person standing on the eastern banks of the Mississippi or the Ohio, in the evening dusk, from the middle of March to that of April, when almost every instant there whizzes past him a woodcock, with a velocity equaling that of our swiftest birds. See them flying across and low over the broad stream; the sound produced by the action of their wings reaches your ear as they approach, and gradually dies away after they have passed again and entered the woods.

No such flights can be seen today, but we occasionally have a comparatively heavy migration; such a flight occurred in 1923 and is thus described in some notes from Edward H. Forbush:

The most remarkable occurrence of the past two months was the prevalence of migrating woodcocks over a large part of southern New England and along the coastal regions to Nova Scotia. The first woodcock was reported in Massachusetts the last week in February and from the first week in March onward woodcocks were noted in slowly increasing numbers over a large part of New England. From March 22 to the first week in April the number of these birds scattered through Connecticut and eastern Massachusetts was remarkable. At evening one could find them almost anywhere. They were seen in the most unlikely places even in daylight. They were in all the towns around Boston and in the suburbs of the city itself, and west at least to the Connecticut Valley they were even more numerous in the woods and swamps. In southern New England at this time a large part of the snow had gone and in going had thawed the ground so that no frost remained and the woodcocks could find earthworms almost everywhere. Farther north there was not only frost in the ground but there was deep snow and the birds could find no food.

Courtship.--The woodcock may be found by those who seek him and know his haunts, but it is only for a short time during the breeding season, that he comes out into the open and makes himself conspicuous. His spectacular evening song-flight has been seen by many observers, and numerous writers have referred to it or described it more of less fully. William Brewster (1894) has given us the best and most complete account of it, but it is too long to quote in full here. I prefer to give my own version of it. The time to look and listen for it is during the laying and incubation period--say the month of April in Massachusetts, earlier farther south, even December and January in the Gulf States. The performance usually begins soon after sunset, as twilight approaches. On dark nights it ceases about when the afterglow finally disappears in the western sky; and it begins again in the morning twilight, lasting from dawn to broad daylight. On moonlight nights it is often continued through much or all of the night. The woodcock's nest is usually in some swampy thicket or on the edge of the woods, near an open pasture, field, or clearing; and here in the nearest open space, preferably on some knoll or low hillside within hearing of his sitting mate, the male woodcock entertains her with his thrilling performance. Sometimes, but not always, he struts around on the ground, with tail erect and spread, and often with bill pointing downwards and resting on his chest. More often he stands still, or walks about slowly in a normal attitude, producing at intervals of a few seconds two very different notes--a loud, rasping, emphatic zeeip--which might be mistaken for the note of the nighthawk, and a soft guttural note, audible at only a short distance, like the croak of a frog or the cluck of a hen. Suddenly he rises, and flies off at a rising angle, circling higher and higher, in increasing spirals, until he looks like a mere speck in the sky, mounting to a height of 200 or 300 feet; during the upward flight he whistles continuously, twittering musical notes, like twitter, itter, itter, itter, repeated without a break. These notes may be caused by the whistling of his wings, but it seems to me that they are vocal. Then comes his true love song--a loud, musical, three-syllable note--sounding to me like chicharee, chicharee, chicharee uttered three times with only a slight interval between the outbursts; this song is given as the bird flutters downward, circling, zigzagging, and finally volplaning down to the ground at or near his starting point. He soon begins again on the zeeip notes and the whole act is repeated again and again. Sometimes two, or even three, birds may be performing within sight or hearing; occasionally one is seen to drive another away.

The performance has been similarly described by several others with slight variations. Mr. Brewster (1894) refers to what I have called the zeeip note as paap and the soft guttural note as p'tul, and says that--"Each paap was closely preceded by a p'tul, so closely at times that the two sounds were nearly merged."

He counted the paaps as "uttered consecutively 31, 21, 37, 29, and 28 times."

Describing the action in detail, he says:

At each utterance of the 'paap' the neck was slightly lengthened, the head was thrown upward and backward (much in the manner of the least flycatcher's while singing), the bill was opened wide and raised to a horizontal position, the wings were jerked out from the body. All these movements were abrupt and convulsive, indicating considerable muscular effort on the part of the bird. There was perhaps also a slight twitching of the tail, but this member was not perceptibly raised or expanded. The return of the several parts to their respective normal positions was quite as sudden as were the initial movements. The forward recovery of the head was well marked. The opening and shutting of the bill strongly suggested that of a pair of tongs. During the emission of the 'paap' the throat swelled and its plumage was ruffled, but neither effect was more marked than with any of our small birds while in the act of singing.

The mouth opened to such an extent that I could look directly down the bird's throat, which appeared large enough to admit the end of one's forefinger. The lateral distention of the mouth was especially striking.

Referring to the song flight, he says: "The flights, which I timed from the start to the finish lasted, respectively, 57 and 59 seconds, the song 11 and 12 seconds respectively." During the flight he followed him with a glass and "made out distinctly that while singing he alternately flapped his wings (several times in succession) and held them extended and motionless."

Francis H. Allen has sent me the following notes on his impression of the song:

In all that has been written of this wonderful performance of the woodcock's, I do not remember to have seen any full description of the song itself; the peeping, or 'peenting,' on the ground, with the alternating water-dropping sounds and the accompaniment of head-jerking and wing-lifting has been described at length, as well as the remarkable spiral ascent into the air on whistling wings; but the character of the actual song, which is uttered at the summit of the ascent and as the bird comes down, is worth a little more attention. It begins in a confused series of chipping whistles which convey the impression of coming from at least three birds at once. These soon resolve themselves into groups of four to six--usually four in my experience--descending notes, the groups alternating with groups of high-pitched wing-whistles. These song notes vary in sweetness with different individuals, but are often very clear and musical. Not the least interesting aspect of the woodcock's evening hymn is the fact that so stolid appearing a bird should be moved by the fervor of courtship to execute so elaborate and exciting a performance. The excitement attending the affair as far as the spectator, or rather listener, is concerned lies to great extent in the wing whistling. When the woodcock first rises, the whistle is comparatively low, but as he mounts, the pitch rises and the rapidity of production increases. It is a steady succession of very short whistling notes for some time, but, when the bird and the whistle both reach their height, it comes in short groups of extremely rapid whistles alternating with brief intervals of motionless wings, as if the performer were breathless with excitement and effort and could not sustain his flight for long at a time. This is the effect, I mean. Probably the bird finds it easy enough, for he makes his flight at comparatively short intervals and during his periods of rest he is hard at work producing his harsh and unmusical nighthawk-like 'peent' notes which involves a deal of muscular effort.

Lynds Jones (1909) says that "the bird floats downward by a crooked path, the while calling in coaxing tones p chuck tuck cuck oo, p chuck tuck cuckoo, uttered more slowly at first, regularly increasing in rapidity until the notes are almost a wheedling call." Isador S. Trostler (1893) describes a feature of the courtship which I have not seen mentioned elsewhere; he writes:

The birds often play in a very droll manner, running round and round each other in a small circle, their feathers ruffled, their wings lifted, and their long bills pointing nearly directly upward, with their heads resting on their backs.

Sometimes they will hop on one foot, holding the other at a queer angle, as if it had been broken or hurt. The male bird utters a low indescribable sound during all the playing, and the sight of these queer antics is worth more than to have seen Modjeska or Barrett in their celebrated plays.

Nesting.--The nesting sites of the woodcock are almost as varied as its haunts at other times. I have never known how or where to look for its nest; in over 40 years of field work I have seen but one nest with eggs. That was shown to me by Mrs. Mary M. Kaan, in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, on June 2, 1924. It was located where I should never have thought of looking for one, in an open, rocky hollow in open woods, within 50 feet of a bridle path on one side and about the same distance from a swampy ravine and brook on the other side. The nest was on a little hummock, surrounded by herbage about a foot high; it was a mere hollow in the ground lined with dead leaves. Although it was in fairly plain sight, it was a long time before I could see the sitting bird, even when it was pointed out to me. The bird sat like a rock, as this species usually does, while I took a series of photographs of it, moving gradually nearer. I even removed two leaves which were resting on her bill, and Mrs. Kaan stroked her on the back before she left. The nest held only three eggs, which were probably a second laying.

The usual nesting sites are in alder runs, swampy thickets, brushy corners in pastures, or in underbrush or tall weeds along the edges of woods. Woodcocks are early breeders and it sometimes happens that nests are buried under late falls of snow; in such cases the birds continue to sit as long as it is possible to do so. The nest is often placed at the foot of a small tree or bush, occasionally beside a log or stump or even under fallen brush. An abundance of fallen leaves seems to be an essential requirement, of which the nest is usually made and among which the bird relies on its protective coloration for concealment; but its big black eyes sometimes reveal it.

L. Whitney Watkins (1894) found a nest near Manchester, Michigan, in heavy timber, and within a few feet of a reed-bordered, springy spot, it was within 2 feet of an ovenbird's nest. Another nest he describes as follows:

The old bird, curiously enough, had selected for her nesting site an open spot where some fallen boughs had partially decayed, and within 5 feet of a picket fence enclosing an open pasture field. Opposite her on the other side, were ash, elm, oak, and other trees, of no considerable size, and round about were many frost-dried stems of aster and goldenrod, interspersed with the fallen leaves of the previous summer. Little of green was near.

E. G. Taber (1904) found a nest that was situated in a swampy corner of a field planted with corn, only 6 feet from the open, on a slightly raised portion of the ground. This corner was overgrown with black ash, soft maple, tag alders, and ferns, mingled with poison ivy. Mr. Brewster (1925) describes two, of several, nests found near Umbagog Lake, Maine, as follows:

One, containing four eggs, incubated perhaps as many days, was in the face of a low mound partially overarched by balsam shrubs surrounded on every side by pools of water, and some 80 yards from the lake shore near the middle of swampy, second-growth woods made up chiefly of aspen, red cherry, and yellow birch trees, 20 or 30 feet in height, beneath which grew alders rather abundantly. The female woodcock flew up from her eggs at least 15 feet in advance of me, and whistling faintly soared off over the tree tops to be seen no more. I flushed a male about 50 yards from this nest.

Of the other he says:

It was at the edge of a little fern-grown opening, on a mound covered with brakes flattened and bleached by winter snows, beneath a balsam scarce 2 feet high, and not dense enough to afford much concealment for the eggs which, indeed, caught my eye when I was 15 feet away, there being no bird on them.

Mr. Trostler (1893) writes:

Finding a nest one day, I disturbed the setting bird three times, and again four times on the next day, and on the morning of the third day I found that the birds had removed the eggs during the night and placed them in a new nest about 8 feet away, where I found the eggs. I had marked the eggs to avoid any mistake. The second nest was a mere hollow in the mossy ground, and was in the middle of an open place in tall marsh grass, while the first was neatly cupped and lined with the above-mentioned vegetable down.

Another singular habit of the woodcock that I have never seen noted is that of both birds setting upon the nest in wet or cold weather. In doing this they huddle very close together and face in opposite directions, and I have always noted that they have their heads thrown back and their bills elevated to an angle of about forty-five degrees.

Mr. Nichols writes to me:

On Long Island there is a favorite nesting station for woodcock, where the woodland gives place to broad fields, separated by narrow stands of big trees with a sparse tangled undergrowth of shrubbery and catbriar, and where here and there a short fresh-water creek extends inland from the not distant bay.

Several writers have stated or implied that the woodcock raises two broods in a season. This would be an exception to the rule among waders. I believe that it normally nests early and that the late nests are merely second attempts at raising a brood, where the first nest has been destroyed.

An interesting case of nest-protecting display is thus described by Dr. Robert Cushman Murphy (1926):

She (assuming that it was the female) would allow us to come within a few feet before leaving her well-concealed position. Then she would spring from the nest, pitch on the ground close by, and, standing with the tail toward us, would raise and spread it so as to show to full advantage the double row of glistening white spots at the ends of the rectrices and under coverts. Next, flashing this striking banner slowly, she would move off among the trees in the attitude of a strutting turkey cock, stopping when we refused to follow, and then tripping ahead for a few steps, all the while bleating softly. The effect was astonishing: the ordinary low visibility of the woodcock against the forest floor no longer held, for the spotted fan of the tail had become a most conspicuous and arresting mark.

Eggs.--The American woodcock lays four eggs, sometimes only three, and rarely five. They vary in shape from ovate to rounded ovate and have a moderate gloss. The ordinary ground colors vary from "pinkish buff" to "cartridge buff" and in certain brown types from "pinkish buff" to "cinnamon." They are usually rather sparingly and more or less evenly marked with small spots, but sometimes these spots are concentrated about the larger end. In the lighter types, which are the most common, there are often many large blotches of light shades of "vinaceous drab" or "brownish drab"; these are conspicuous and often predominate. Mixed with them are numerous small spots of light browns, "cinnamon," "clay color," or "tawny olive." In the brown types these spots are in richer browns, "hazel," "russet," or "cinnamon brown," with the drab spots less conspicuous.

The measurements of 53 eggs, in the United States National Museum, average 38 by 29 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 41 by 30 and 35 by 27.5 millimeters.

Young.--The period of incubation is 20 or 21 days. Both sexes assist in this and in the care of the young. An incubating woodcock is notorious as a close sitter and cannot usually be flushed from the nest unless nearly trodden upon; often it can be touched or even lifted from the eggs. The young are rather feeble when first hatched and are brooded by the parent bird much of the time for the first day or two. If flushed from her brood of young the female flutters away for a short distance as if hardly able to fly, with dangling legs and tail depressed and spread. If the young are strong enough to walk, she calls to them making a clucking sound, to which they respond with a faint peeping sound, as they run toward her; having gathered them under her wings, she covers them again trusting to her concealing coloration. If the young are too young and feeble to run, she may return when she thinks it safe, and carry them off between her legs, one at a time. Several reliable and accurate observers have testified to seeing this done; some who have not see it have doubted it. The following account by Edwyn Sandys (1904) seems convincing:

The nest in question was on a bit of level ground amid tall trees. The sole suggestion of cover was a lot of flattened leaves which lay as the snow had left them. Perhaps 10 yards away was an old rail fence about waist high, and on the farther side of it was a clump of tall saplings. A man coming out of the wood told me he had just flushed a woodcock and had seen her brood, recently hatched and pointed out where they were. I went in to investigate, and located one young bird crouched on the leaves. It ran a few steps and again crouched, evidently not yet strong enough for any sustained effort. I went off, and hid behind a stump, to await developments. From this shelter the young bird was visible and it made no attempt to move. Presently the old one came fluttering back, alighted near the youngster, and walked to it. In a few moments she rose and flew low and heavily, merely clearing the fence, and dropping perhaps 10 yards within the thicket. Her legs appeared to be half bent, and so far as I could determine the youngster was held between them. Something about her appearance reminded me of a thing often seen--a shrike carrying off a small bird. I carefully marked her down, then glanced toward where the youngster had been. It was no longer there; and a few moments later it, or its mate, was found exactly where the mother had gone down. She flushed and made off in the usual summer flight.

William H. Fisher writes to me:

On May 16, 1903, I flushed an old bird at upper end of the Eagle Woods. She left three young on the ground, they remaining very quiet, cuddled in the dead leaves. In a few minutes she returned and alighted by them took one between her legs, holding it right up to her belly, and flew off into the thicket. I sat and watched the other two young for about 15 minutes, hoping and expecting the mother bird would return, but, she not doing so, I got tired and left. As the usual set of eggs is four, I wonder if the old bird carried off one when she first flushed.

John T. Nichols tells, in his notes, of a brood found on Long Island:

This brood was found early in the morning by working painstakingly in a narrow stand of trees where a nest was suspected. The parent bird rose from almost under foot and fluttered away, as is customary in such cases, with tail spread, pointing down, legs dangling wide apart. It was perhaps a minute before the eye could pick out four young lying motionless side by side, so inconspicuous was their color against the background. For another couple of minutes they lay motionless. Then of one accord rolled to their feet and spreading their baby wings aloft, as though to balance, walked deliberately away with fine, scarcely audible cheeping, each in a slightly different direction. Apparently reliable reports are current of the woodcock carrying its young, but the characteristic peculiar labored flight, with deflected tail and widespread legs, just described, may also easily give such an impression erroneously.

Again he writes:

Just after sunrise on a clear morning I came upon 3 birds in an open field. Two of them flew in different directions, one swiftly and silently quickly disappeared, the other in the peculiar fluttering manner characteristic of a parent when surprised with young. As I reached the point where the two had risen the presence of helpless young was confirmed by the actions of a bird on the ground some 75 yards away, at the edge of the trees to which the parent had flown. Its head up, watching me, both wings were extended to the side, flapping feebly.

I had stood a couple of minutes scrutinizing the ground about, when my eye alighted on a fledgling. At the same instant it rose to its feet, raised and extended its wings to the side, and began to walk rapidly away, calling a high-pitched 'seep!' Its wings were fully feathered, though little grown, feathers extending narrowly between them across the back, sides of its lower parts feathered, feathers not quite meeting in the center, otherwise in down. Contrast its helplessness with the young bobwhite which flies at a much earlier stage.

Audubon (1840) describes the actions of the anxious mother in the following well-chosen words:

She scarcely limps, nor does she often flutter along the ground, on such occasions; but with half extended wings, inclining her head to one side, and uttering a soft murmur, she moves to and fro, urging her young to hasten towards some secure spot beyond the reach of their enemies. Regardless of her own danger, she would to all appearance gladly suffer herself to be seized, could she be assured that by such a sacrifice she might ensure the safety of her brood. On an occasion of this kind, I saw a female woodcock lay herself down on the middle of the road, as if she were dead, while her little ones, five in number, were endeavoring on feeble legs to escape from a pack of naughty boys, who had already caught one of them, and were kicking it over the dust in barbarous sport. The mother might have shared the same fate, had I not happened to issue from the thicket, and interpose on her behalf.

Plumages--The downy young woodcock, when newly hatched, is conspicuously and handsomely marked; the upper parts are "warm buff" or "light ochraceous buff," distinctively marked with rich "seal brown"; these markings consist (with some individual variation) of a large, central crown patch, extending in a stripe down the forehead, a large occipital patch, a stripe from the bill through the eye to the occiput, a broad stripe down the center and one down each side of the back, a patch on each wing and each thigh and irregular markings on the sides of the head and neck; the under parts are more rufous, "pinkish cinnamon" or "cinnamon buff," and unmarked.

The juvenal plumage appears at an early age, coming in first on the back and wings; the wings grow rapidly, and the young bird can fly long before it is fully grown. This plumage is much like that of the adult, but it can be distinguished during the first summer by its looser texture and by broader brown edgings on the wing coverts, scapulars, and tertials. A prolonged postnuptial molt of the body plumage during late summer and fall produces a first winter plumage which is nearly adult. At the first prenuptial molt, in late winter and spring, young birds become indistinguishable from adults.

Adults have an incomplete prenuptial molt, involving the body plumage, some wing coverts, scapulars, and tertials, in late winter and early spring, and a complete postnuptial molt in July and August. Fall birds are much more richly colored than spring adults.

Food.--The woodcock is a voracious feeder; its principal food is earthworms or angleworms, of which it has been known to eat more than its own weight in 24 hours. It is said to feed mainly at night or during the long hours of twilight or dusk. The worms are obtained by probing in mud or damp earth in any place where worms are to be found, including gardens and cultivated fields. The long bill of the woodcock is well supplied with sensitive nerves, in which the sense of touch is highly developed; it can detect the movements of a worm in the soil and capture it by probing. Numerous borings are often seen close together, indicating that the bird does not always strike the worm at the first stab. Probably its keen ears also help to locate its prey. It is said to beat the soft ground with its feet or wings, which is supposed to suggest the effect of pattering rain and draw the worms toward the surface.

C. J. Maynard (1896) made the following observations on a captive bird:

The floor of its house was covered to the depth of four or five inches with dark-colored loam, in which I planted a quantity of weeds, beneath which the woodcock could hide. I would drop a number of worms on this soil, which, as the bird was too shy to feed at first, had ample time to bury themselves. At times, however, I was able to watch the bird unseen by it; then the woodcock, which had remained hidden in the corner behind the sheltering weeds, would emerge cautiously and walk over the ground, slowly and deliberately, pausing every instant or two as if listening intently. Then he would stamp with one foot, giving several sharp, quick blows, after which he would bow his head near the ground and again listen. Then suddenly he would turn either to the right of left or take a step or two forward, plunge his bill into the earth, and draw out a worm which he would swallow, then repeat this performance until all the worms were eaten.

During dry spells, when the worms have returned to the subsoil, the woodcock must seek other foods. It then resorts to the woods, where it turns over the leaves in search of grubs, slugs, insects, and larvae. It has even been known to eat grasshoppers. Mr. Rich (1907) says that in early spring, before the alder covers are open, it feeds on ants. Frederick S. Webster (1887) reports a singular case, where the crop of a woodcock was crammed full of leaves of a common fern.

Behavior.--The woodcock is so nocturnal or crepuscular in its habits that it remains quietly hidden in its favorite covers during the day and is seldom seen to fly unless disturbed, when it flutters up through the trees with a weak, irregular, or zig-zag flight, dodging the branches. When clear of obstructions, it flies more swiftly and directly, but usually for only a short distance, and soon pitches down into the cover again. One can usually follow it and flush it again and again. Toward dusk it becomes much more active, and its shadowy form is often seen flying over the tree tops and across open places to its feeding grounds. At such times its flight is steady and direct, with regular wing strokes; its chunky form with its long bill pointing downward is easily recognized. While traveling at night its flight is quite swift. When rising in flight the woodcock produces, usually but not always, a distinct whistling or twittering sound. This has led to much discussion and differences of opinion, as to whether the sound is produced by the wings or is vocal. I am inclined to the latter theory, for I have often seen a woodcock fly without whistling, and many others have referred to such a flight.

Few of us have ever seen a woodcock alight in a tree, but Mr. Rich (1907) refers to several instances where the bird has been seen to do this by reliable witnesses. Once he himself shot one in the act.

Voice.--Except during the spectacular song-flight and courtship performance, the woodcock is a very silent bird, unless we regard the twittering heard when it rises as vocal. Mr. Nichols says in his notes:

The quality of the twitter of a rising woodcock corresponds more or less to the character of its flight. When, as is frequently the case, the bird merely flutters a short distance to drop again behind the screen of undergrowth, it amounts to little more than the chirping of crickets. On one occasion when I observed an individual barely escape the attack of an Accipiter, this sound, as it rose, was less shrill and loud than often, but more rapid and sustained, with an incisive quality suggesting a rattlesnake's alarm. When a woodcock rises through thick brush or brambles its wings make a whirring sound not unlike that of the bob white, accompanied by a slight twitter.

Mr. Brewster (1925) writes:

Many years ago I expressed in print a belief that the whistling sound made by a rising woodcock is produced by the bird's wings. This conviction has since been confirmed by field experience at the lake with woodcock killed during the first half of September, and in varying conditions of moult. Such of them as still retained or had just renewed the attenuated outer primaries, almost always whistled when flushed, whereas no sound other than a dull fluttering one was ever heard from any of those not thus equipped. Hence I continue to hold firmly to the opinion that the woodcock's clear, silvery whistle emanates from these "whistling quills," as sportsmen fitly term them, and not from the bird's throat. There are, however, certain sounds, not very much unlike those which combine to form the usual characteristic whistle, but more disconnected and twittering, which may be of vocal origin. One hears them oftenest from the woodcock hovering, just before alighting, and flitting low over the ground for trifling distances, beating their wings rather listlessly. This comparatively slow pulsation of the wings might account for the interrupted sequence of the sounds, but not perhaps, for their seemingly throaty quality.

Edward H. Forbush (1925) quotes three observers, as follows:

Mr. W. H. Harris asserts that he held a woodcock by the bill which whistled three times with a rotary motion of body and wings. Mr. J. M. Dinsmore held a woodcock by the body and wings to prevent movement of these parts, and he says that this bird whistled through its mouth and throat. Mr. H. Austin avers that he flushed a woodcock that did not whistle, marked the bird and put him up again when he whistled, which indicates that the bird may have made the sound with its vocal equipment.

Fall.---The following from the pen of Mr. Forbush (1912) illustrates the conditions which affect the fall flight:

The flights of birds from the North have not diminished in number so much as have the native birds. Occasionally a large flight stops here, as in early November, 1908, when woodcock were plentiful here, and when some gunners in Connecticut secured from 20 to 40 birds each in a day. This flight did not denote such an increase in the number of these birds, however, as generally was believed. The explanation is that they all came at once.  The birds in Maine and the Provinces had a good breeding season, and they must have had a plentiful supply of food, for the autumn weather was mild, and they mostly remained in their northern homes until nearly the 1st of November. Flight birds were rare in Massachusetts up to that time, and the bags were small. The fall had been warm and dry, but on October 29 and 30 New England and the Provinces experienced a severe northeast storm along the seaboard, followed by a cold northwest wind, which probably froze up the northern feeding grounds, if the storm had not already buried them in snow. Either or both of these conditions drove the woodcock into southern New England. My correspondence shows that this flight landed in every county of Massachusetts except Dukes and Nantucket. As usual, comparatively few were seen in Barnstable County. Connecticut covers harbored many woodcock from about November 12 to November 20. There were many in Rhode Island, and the flight was noted as far south as Delaware.

Game.--It is as a game bird that the woodcock is best known, most beloved, and most popular, for it is a prince among game birds, and its flesh is a delight to the palate of an epicure. What sportsman will not stop in his pursuit of other game to hunt some favorite corner, some woodland border, or some brushy hillside where he has flushed this bird of mystery before? And what a thrill he gets as the brown ball of feathers suddenly flutters up from almost underfoot among the crisp autumn leaves, dodging up through the branches with a whistled note of warning, and flies away over the treetops! Perhaps he was too surprised at first to shoot; but, if he marked it down, he can soon flush it again, for it has not gone far; then, if he is quick and true at snap shooting, he may pick up the coveted prize, admire the soft, warm, ruddy breast, the pretty pattern of woodland light and shades, the delicate long bill, and the big liquid eyes. An aristocrat among game birds!

In the early days when I first began shooting, summer woodcock shooting was regularly practiced; the season opened in July, when the young birds of late broods were not large enough to furnish good sport and were not fit for the table. Moreover, the weather was often hot and the foliage was dense, making it unsatisfactory for the sportsmen. The only excuse for it was that it allowed some shooting in certain sections where local birds departed early and where flight birds seldom occurred. It went far towards exterminating local breeding birds in Massachusetts; it was bad for all concerned, and it is well that it was abandoned.

From the above and other causes woodcocks have decreased alarmingly during the past 50 years. One gets an impressive idea of the former abundance of the birds by reading the quaint shooting tales of Frank Forester, in which he boasts of having shot with a friend 125 birds in one day and 70 the next day before noon, and this with the old-fashioned muzzle-loading guns. His hunting trips were joyous occasions, in which the noonday luncheon, washed down with ample draughts of applejack, held a prominent place.

By far the best shooting is to be had on flight birds, which are big and fat and strong on the wing. In warm weather they frequent the black alder thickets where there are bunches of grass and weeds, or the vicinity of brooks or springs where there is a growth of alders, willows, and birches. On crisp, cold days in October they may be found on sunny hillsides or ridges, among birches, bayberries, or huckleberries, on the sunny edges of the woods, in cedar pastures, in locust scrub, or even in old scrubby orchards. For shooting in thick cover a light short-barreled gun that scatters well is desirable, for snapshots at short range are often necessary. I prefer a light charge of fine shot, which scatters more and does not tear the birds so badly. A good dog adds much to the pleasure of hunting and is very helpful in locating or retrieving birds. The birds will sometimes run for short distances before a setter or pointer, and it is often necessary for the shooter to flush his own bird, which may place him in a poor position to shoot. Therefore a well-trained spaniel, which runs around close to the shooter and flushes the birds, is generally more satisfactory.

For those who have no dog, or prefer to hunt without one, there is another method of shooting woodcocks which can be practiced successfully by one who is sufficiently familiar with their haunts and habits. From their haunts on the uplands, where they rest during the day, the birds fly through the open just before dark to their favorite feeding place along some swampy run or boggy thicket, resorting regularly to the same spot night after night. If the shooter knows of such a place, where the birds are fairly plentiful, he can station himself there about sunset and feel reasonably sure of a few shots during the brief time that the birds are coming in. But increasing darkness soon makes shooting difficult.

Enemies.--Like other ground nesting birds, woodcocks undoubtedly have many natural enemies among the predatory animals and birds; but these have always existed without detriment to the species. As has often been said, predatory birds and animals destroy mainly the weak and diseased individuals, which are the most easily caught; the stronger and more vigorous individuals are more likely to escape and perpetrate a hardier race, better fitted to survive.

The natural elements often take their toll in a wholesale destruction. Arthur T. Wayne (1910) relates the effect of a cold wave on the coast of South Carolina, February 13 and 14, 1899, when the thermometer dropped to 14o and the ground was covered with deep snow; he writes:

The woodcock arrived in countless thousands. Prior to their arrival I had seen but two birds the entire winter. They were everywhere and were completely bewildered. Tens of thousands were killed by would-be sportsmen, and thousands were frozen to death. The great majority were so emaciated that they were practically feathers and of course were unable to withstand the cold. One man killed 200 pairs in a few hours. I shot a dozen birds. Late Tuesday afternoon I easily caught several birds on the snow and put them into a thawed spot on the edge of a swift running stream in order that they would not perish, but upon going to the place the next morning I found one frozen. These were fearfully emaciated and could scarcely fly. Two birds were killed in Charleston in Broad Street. It will be many years before this fine bird can establish itself under most favorable conditions.

Telegraph and other wires cause the death of thousands of birds. Woodcocks migrate at night and fly low; if they strike head, bill, or breast against a wire it means almost certain death. Many dead birds are picked up under wires. Wires are increasing all the time and it is to be hoped that the birds will learn to avoid them.

But the main cause of the woodcock's disappearance is excessive hunting of a bird too easily killed, summer shooting in the North, and wholesale slaughter during a long winter season in the South. A good account of the barbarous sport, called fire hunting, as practiced in Louisiana, is given by Dr. E. J. Lewis (1885), as follows:

The shooter, armed with a double-barreled gun, and decked with a broad-brimmed palmetto hat, sallies forth on a foggy night to the "ridge," where the cocks are now feeding in wonderful numbers. His companion on these expeditions is generally a stout-built negro, bearing before him a species of old-fashioned warming pan, in which is deposited a goodly supply of pine knots. Having arrived on the ground, the cocks are soon heard whizzing about on every side; the pine knots are quickly kindled into a flame, and carried over the head of the negro. The shooter keeps as much as possible in the shade, with his broad-brimmed palmetto protecting his eyes from the glare, and follows close after the torch bearer, who walks slowly ahead. The cocks are soon seen sitting about on the ground, staring widely around in mute astonishment, not knowing what to do, and are easily knocked over with a slight pop of the gun, or more scientifically brought to the ground as they go booming off to the marshes.

The lurid glare of the torch only extends to a distance of 20 yards or so around the negro; the sportsman must, therefore, be on the quivive to knock the birds over as soon as they rise, otherwise they will immediately be shrouded in the impenetrable darkness of night.

These excursions are carried on with great spirit, sometimes continue the whole night through, and the slaughter of the cocks is often very great; with an experienced "fire hunter" it is no unusual occurrence to bag in this way 50 couple before morning.

 


American Woodcock*
Scolopax minor

*Original Source: Bent, Arthur Cleveland. 1927.  Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 142 (Part 1): 61-78. United States Government Printing Office

 


Return to FAMILIAR BIRDS Home Page
Return to beginning of document