American woodcock is a plump, short-legged bird of the
sandpiper family a shore bird that doesn't spend
time at the beach! It is about the size of a quail,
with rounded wings, a short tail, a short, thick neck,
and a very long, straight bill.
The woodcock's plumage has cryptic coloration, that
is, it has a mottled pattern of rusty browns and grays
that affords the bird good camouflage as it crouches
during the day amidst fallen leaves. Male, female and
fully feathered juvenile birds are all similar in appearance.
The woodcock is a crepuscular creature, that is, most
of its feeding takes place at dawn or dusk. Its diet
consists primarily of earthworms and insect larvae.
The bird has a special adaptation to capture its prey.
There are nerve endings in the lower third of its bill
with which it can "feel" earthworms in the
mud. Then, it can lift just the tip of the upper bill
and seize the hapless worm! The underside of the upper
bill and the tongue are rough and the slippery prey
can be dragged out. The bill is thus both a probe and
The woodcock's large, dark protruding eyes are set so
high and so far back that it has overlapping fields
of vision both in front and in back of its head. The
woodcock can see above, behind and to the sides, as
well as forward, while he is probing the mud for food,
so that he can be aware of any predator intending to
make a meal of him!
We find woodcock inhabiting the edge of forests bordering
moist meadows. They rest during the day, depending on
their cryptically-colored plumage to conceal them. If
one approaches them too closely, they shoot up explosively,
their wings making a distinctive whistling sound.
The American woodcock is famous for its spectacular
courtship "song flights" that occur in spring
over the breeding grounds. These displays take place
at dusk when the owls call, throughout moonlit nights,
and at dawn.
At first, the male struts about in a clearing, calling
a very soft "cook-ooo." Then, he begins to
utter a repetitive, nasal "preent." He takes
to the air, and in so doing, produces the whistling
sound with his flight feathers. By a series of spiraling
loops, he ascends to two or three hundred feet, and
is sometimes lost to the observer in the dim light.
Suddenly, he plummets earthward in a looping, slanting
descent, singing "zleep, zleep" as he flies,
and landing very near to where he took off!
(Since woodcock don't possess gaudy feathers, they have
developed the aerial displays to attract the attention
and capture the approval of female birds.)
If the courtship display is pleasing to a female waiting
nearby, the birds will mate, then, the hen will go forth
to raise her family alone. Her nest is merely a slight
depression she has scraped in the leaf litter on the
ground, lined with grasses or pine needles and rimmed
with twigs. Each day, she lays one buff-colored egg,
decorated with light brown blotches and overlaid with
darker brown markings. There are usually four eggs in
all. She doesn't begin to incubate them till all are
laid; that way, all will hatch at about the same time.
When the hen is sitting on her eggs, she sometimes falls
into a "brooding trance" and can actually
be stroked by one who comes upon her!
After three weeks, the downy woodcock chicks hatch out,
alert and with open eyes. Soon after hatching, they
can follow their mother or crouch motionless at the
approach of danger. In only two weeks, they can fly,
and in four weeks, they are almost fully grown!
The American woodcock ranges in Eastern North America
from Southern Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, however,
the winters must be spent in the southern part of its
range, for it must have unfrozen ground to probe for
its food. When the days grows shorter, woodcock assemble
in loose flocks for their annual migration.
Unfortunately, woodcock are heavily hunted game birds,
prized for their flesh. Ed Sanders wrote in his biography
of Chekhov in verse of an incident that took place when
Chekhov and his friend Levitan went hunting woodcock:
Levitan shot at a bird
which fell wounded
by his feet
"It had a long beak, large dark eyes,
and fine plumage."
It looked at the painter and writer
Levitan closed his eyes
and begged Doctor Chekhov,
The bird continued its stunned stare.
Finally Chekhov killed it.
"One lovely, amorous creature less,"
"and two imbeciles went back home
and sat down to table."
Articles by Miriam Sanders