Friday, April 11, 2003
American Woodcock Scolopax minor
One of the earliest rites of spring is the flight display of the American Woodcock, a chunky and peculiar-looking member of the sandpiper family. Males arrive back on their Carlisle breeding grounds in March or early April, and will return to the same locations every year.
One of the best places in Carlisle to observe the woodcock flight display is at Foss Farm, near the Concord River. If you walk to the horse-riding ring at dusk, and wait until dark, you should hear the buzzy "peent" call of the male. The male makes this call while on the ground, presumably to advertise his presence to a female and competing males. After making this call a few times, the male takes to flight in an expanding spiral pattern, rising up several hundred yards. As it flies, its wings make a twittering sound. The bird then zigzags back down to the ground, often landing in nearly the same spot. The bird makes a chirping sound as it descends. The entire performance is then repeated, and may go on throughout the night if there is strong moonlight.
Woodcocks prefer wooded areas adjacent to open fields, especially where the soils are damp and fertile. Their diet consists largely of earthworms, but includes insects and invertebrates such as spiders, millipedes, and crustaceans. The woodcock's upper mandible is flexible; it can open the tip of its bill underground to seize prey. It apparently uses its bill to feel for earthworms (Terres). The genus name derives from the Greek skolops or skolopos, meaning a pointed object, an allusion to the long bill. Our native bird is a smaller relative of a similar but larger Eurasian species, hence the species name minor. Woodcocks are crepuscular, meaning they are most active at dawn and dusk, like bats.
At Foss Farm, several males (usually three or four) establish territories around the agricultural field, and two or more birds may display simultaneously. Another vocalization you might hear, if you're lucky, is the "tuko" call, a very soft call like a dripping faucet, made by both sexes. We heard this call last year for the first time when a male came very close.
After mating, the female woodcock builds a well-camouflaged nest on the ground, usually located at least 300 feet from the flight display area (Harrison). The nest is a slight depression in dead leaves, with possibly a few sticks and lined with pine needles. Four eggs are laid, and the chicks hatch after an incubation period of 20-21 days. The young birds are precocial, and leave the nest within 24 hours to hunt with the mother. If the female is on the nest and a possible predator approaches, she will remain motionless and rely on her coloration (like dead leaves) to provide protection. If flushed, she will fly a short distance with tail fanned and legs dangling, in an attempt to distract the predator from the nest.
Several people have reported seeing woodcocks making a strange rocking motion, sometimes while in the middle of a road. The bird's head remains still, but the body rocks back and forth while it moves slowly forward. I have not seen this myself, but from what I have read it is thought to be a response to possible danger, as if the woodcock were thinking: "I know you're there, and I'm watching you." This motion is also apparently made by the female when she returns to the nest. (We recently observed a Common Snipe making a rocking movement while foraging in a muddy field.)
Woodcocks leave their summer territories in the fall, and have usually gone south by the first hard frost. However, I have heard of instances of woodcock being seen in town as late as December. They may be able to gather animal food at the edges of streams, for example; they also eat some vegetable matter such as seeds and fruit. According to the Stokeses, woodcocks congregate in the Gulf Coast and southeastern coastal states in the winter, with large numbers residing in central Louisiana. I wonder if they dine on Louisiana's famous delicacy, the crayfish?
The author is grateful to Bill Byrne of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife for permission to use one of his superb woodcock photographs.
1. Gruson, Edward S., Words for Birds, Quadrangle Books, p. 101, 1972.
2. Terres, John K., The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds, Wings Books, pp. 788-790, 1991.
3. Stokes, Donald W. and Lillian Q. Stokes, A Guide to Bird Behavior, Vol. III, Little, Brown and Co., pp. 53-63, 1989.
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