Big Romantic Gestures from the Little American Woodcock
Romance is in the air. For the American woodcock (Scolopax minor), that’s a literal statement. The courtship ritual of the woodcock is the most elaborate that I’ve seen outside of Homo sapiens, and is a must-see for lovers of forests, birds, or flirtation. In the southerly parts of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, lucky residents may be treated to woodcock mating as early as mid-February. For those of you who have yet to formulate Valentine’s Day plans, I can’t recommend a date idea more than searching for courting timberdoodles (an adorable colloquial epithet) in the countryside at sunset.
A true oddball, the American woodcock is an unlikely Lothario of our eastern forests. They live and breed as far inland as Nebraska, but belong to Scolopacidae, the sandpiper family. Woodcock are chunky birds with stubby legs, a short neck and tail, a bill that is about a third as long as their body, and big eyes that are mounted high and close to the back of their skull. That long bill has a prehensile tip which the birds use to grip their prey, almost entirely earthworms, deep below the surface.
Because of their diet and feeding style, woodcock need soft soil and are frequently found in wet areas where mud abounds. They also need dense cover from predators while foraging, roosting, and nesting on the ground, and require the thick undergrowth of young forests or forest openings to avoid becoming prey. When still, their cryptic plumage blends in perfectly with leaf litter. They are rarely seen outside of the breeding season unless flushed from the forest floor or spotted while foraging, when they sometimes strut (do yourself a favor and follow that link) to spur invertebrate movement beneath the soil as a hunting strategy.
While their foraging wobble is endlessly charming, their mating ritual is nothing short of magical. Called the “Sky Dance” by founding father of wildlife biology Aldo Leopold, the woodcock courtship can be seen at dawn or dusk in the late winter/early spring, though the dance has been documented as early as December in Florida and March in Canada. Woodcock “singing grounds” need to be free of trees and at least 0.25 acres large to accommodate their acrobatics. Recently cut forest patches, fields with scrubby borders that transition to forests, and oldfields provide the perfect combination of ample aerial space and nearby cover to escape predators and eventually build the nests.
The sky dance begins with a vocal display, where the male repeats a “Peent” call to get female attention. He then bursts into the sky, making a chirping whistle which is not a vocalization, but created as air rushes through his wingtips. The woodcock climbs in a spiral up to 300 feet from the ground, makes a warbling “kissing noise” near the top of his ascent, and then silently plummets to the earth to start Peenting again (here’s a video of the whole process, which is very hard to record). Males usually perform the sky dance until dark, but have been noted to court through the night if the moon is bright. How romantic!
Females, which are known as hens, typically build nests within 500 feet of the singing ground. Males will mate with multiple hens, and thereafter provide no role in nesting or brood-rearing. How unromantic!
Hens build depressions in leaf litter to lay their eggs, usually under thick undergrowth near moist soils. Though they are known to easily spook and abandon their nest just after laying eggs, woodcock hens will stick tightly to the nest as incubation has drawn on, to the point that some people claim to have touched a female on the nest (please don’t be that person). Incubation takes 21 days on average. Like many ground-nesting birds, chicks are precocial, meaning they emerge from eggs covered in down and can leave the nest only a few hours after hatching. The female broods the chicks even after they can feed themselves 3 or 4 days after hatching, protecting them from predators and inclimate weather until they are independent in about five weeks.
The American Woodcock is the most common sandpiper in North America, but still garners concern from enthusiasts. Long-term monitoring data shows an annual 1.1% population decline since the 1970s, despite population growth in the northern extent of its range. Much of this decline is attributed to trends in forest management. The woodcock needs dense cover that is found primarily in abandoned agricultural fields and recently harvested forest stands. Due to a general public disdain for clearcuts and a shrinking timber industry in the northeast and mid-Atlantic, there are less stands of dense young forest on the landscape for woodcock, and dozens of other species that rely on this habitat, to call home. If we still want our valentines to hear timberdoodles peenting in the moonlight for years to come, we need to commit to sustainable forest management for this species and many others.
To learn more about forest management, check out forestsforthebay.org, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about woodcock, stop by timberdoodle.org, ruffedgrousesociety.org, or a wet, scrubby meadow at sunset. And if you’re inclined toward social media, let us know your favorite colloquial name for the American woodcock: the timberdoodle, Labrador twister, hokumpoke, night partridge, or bog sucker?