December’s Bird of the Month: American Woodcock – Scolopax minor

Have you ever been walking along in the woods and had a chubby little bird with a long bill jump up right in front of you? If you have, you won’t forget it! It was most likely the American Woodcock. This species can be found on the forest floor and in shrubby old fields. The American Woodcock resides in the central and eastern United States, all the way up to the southern portion of Canada and all the way down into Florida and Texas.

What about that long and slender probe of a bill on their face? The woodcock uses its bill to dig for invertebrates in the soil. Their favorite snacks are earth worms. The woodcock will walk slowly through the woods rocking back and forth, putting more weight on their front leg to cause the earth worms to move. This allows the bird to detect the worms moving below it and then dive its bill into the soil. This is where the bird then utilizes its unique muscle and bone structure to open the tip of its bill under ground to grab the worm! Have you noticed their large eyes? They are positioned almost towards the back of the woodcock’s head so that they can keep an eye out for predators while they are digging in the dirt for food.

The American Woodcock’s breeding show is one of the most fascinating things about this bird. In the spring evenings, the males will send out a call that sounds like peent, in an open area big enough for all to see his display. His calls are followed up with a wide, upward spiral 250-300 feet into the sky twitching his wings as he gets higher. He then zigzags back down chirping until he lands silently next to a female, only to preen and begin his dance again! Because of this lavish dance the American Woodcock is also known as the timberdoodle, Labrador twister, night partridge, and bog sucker. The females will lay a clutch of eggs and incubate them for 20-22 days. Once hatched the little puff balls leave the nest within a few hours to be cared for by their mom, and within a few days they are probing the dirt to feed themselves.

The conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote that the woodcock’s mesmerizing sky dances were “a 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.” His writing helped spur the mid-twentieth century conservation movement.

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