For most hunters and bird enthusiasts in the Southeast, the term “game bird” conjures up images of a turkey gobbler in full strut, a covey of quail flushing from the brush and tall grass or an incoming group of mourning doves on the horizon. But the American Woodcock garners little attention despite being one of the most common game bird species.
The American Woodcock (Scolopax minor) is categorized as a shorebird, belonging to the family Scolopacidae (sandpiper family). However, they are rarely seen along beaches and shorelines. They prefer dense, young forests, field edges and open fields. Woodcocks are resident in the southern parts of their range but are migratory in the northern range. The greatest concentration of migrant birds tends to winter in Louisiana and Mississippi.
The woodcock has an odd appearance. About the size of a robin, it is a plump and short-legged bird with a long, straight bill. It has a large head with eyes set far back in the skull, a short neck, and short tail feathers. The feathers on their back and sides are a mottled pattern of gray, brown, and black tones; their breast and underside are a buff or light rust color. These color tones and patterns allow them to blend in well with the forest floor.
American Woodcocks feed by probing the soil with their long beaks for earthworms and other invertebrates, such as small snails and spiders. While walking along the ground, they rock back and forth. This rocking motion is believed to be a useful adaptation for causing and detecting the movement of prey.
The woodcock’s odd looks, strange walking motion and association with upland wooded habitats earned it a nickname among birders: the Timberdoodle.
Woodcocks are generally solitary birds, spending most of their time on the ground, so most people don’t normally see them when out and about in the woods. The exception is during the breeding season when male woodcocks establish “singing grounds” in brushland or scrubland clearings and along field edges to perform their courtship displays at dawn and dusk.
Courtship begins with the male calling from the ground, a sound best described as a nasally “peent.” After a minute or so of peenting, the male suddenly takes flight and spirals upward into the sky, sometimes as high as 200 to 300 feet.
During flight, the wingbeats emit a “twittering” sound. After reaching the desired height, the male bird stops suddenly and descends in a slow spiral back to the ground, all the while chirping. Aldo Leopold, in his collection of essays titled “A Sand County Almanac,” called this courtship display the “Sky Dance.”
Although they are not very glamorous and are rarely at the forefront of game bird discussions, the American woodcock is certainly an interesting species. It’s too late for any hunting opportunities this year, but there are still a couple of weeks to witness firsthand their courtship displays.
Locate a singing ground and take a knee, shake out a lawn chair or drop the tailgate, and take in a sky dance. To paraphrase Leopold: “The woodcock is a living refutation of the theory that the utility of a game bird is to serve as a target or to pose gracefully on a slice of toast. No one would rather hunt woodcock than I, but since learning of the sky dance, I find one or two birds are enough. I must be sure that, come spring, there be no dearth of dancers in the sunset sky.”
For information, visit allaboutbirds.org/guide/American_Woodcock/overview.
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