They are inconspicuous and well camouflaged for living on the forest floor, old fields, or wet spring meadows. Their eyes are nearly on the back of their heads, giving them the ability to see not only what is in front of them but what is behind them. Their bills look too long for their body; but this elongated bill helps them eat their weight in earthworms and other small invertebrates like spiders, beetles, and ants each day. And, in spring, males do an incredible “sky dance” at dusk and dawn, a mating display that is a highlight to any evening walk in springtime.
Who are they? They are American woodcock (woodcock), also known as the timberdoodle and Labrador twister. Woodcocks are mourning dove sized birds. They have short necks and tails and large heads and beaks. They are one of the few shore birds that have adapted to living in the forest.
For many people, the mating “dance” of the male woodcock is a sure sign that spring has arrived. The courtship ritual starts at dusk with the male sitting on the ground in an opening in the forest or in a small field. He repeatedly utters a distinctive peent call. Next he takes off from the ground flying in a slow upward spiral. As the wind moves through the wings, a whistling sound can be heard as the bird rises. When he reaches 200-350 feet above the ground, the wing sounds become irregular and then cease as he starts a zig-zag descent. He also chirps as he goes down. He then lands silently next to a female woodcock, if she is present, and resumes peenting. The display starts again and will continue well into dark. He resumes the “dance” near dawn and will continue it until sunrise. Listen for them in the evening in wet meadows or fields in March or April, even before the snow has melted. (Click here to listen to a woodcock.)
After mating, a female woodcocks lays her eggs in shallow depressions on the ground. She usually lays four eggs that take about 21 days to incubate. Once they are hatched out, the young chicks follow their mother, learning what to eat. They grow quickly on their earthworm and insect diet. By the time they are a month old, they are nearly the same size as their mothers.
In mid-fall woodcocks migrate from New York to the southeastern coast. They return to New York once the ground has thawed.
Post by Susan Carver, OPRHP.
Join us for a “Woodcock Walk” at:
Theodore Roosevelt Nature Center, Jones Beach State Park, Wantagh, Adult Ed-ventures, Friday, April 10, 7-8:30 pm, $4/person
American woodcock, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/american_woodcock/id
American woodcock, New York State Department of Conservation, http://www.dec.ny.gov/animals/45448.html