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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

The male woodcock: Shy and nocturnal – until it's time to go courtin'. © Don Blegen
The male woodcock: Shy and nocturnal – until it's time to go courtin'.

© Don Blegen

April 2001

Aerial
show-offs

Secretive woodcocks take center stage for a few weeks each spring.

Anita Carpenter

Those funny-looking brown birds with the long bills slipped back into dense thickets and moist woodlands under cover of darkness. Returning in mid to late March, the secretive, well-camouflaged birds are inconspicuous until their familiar nasally peents break the twilight stillness of a warm evening in early spring. At last, courtship for American woodcocks (Scolopax minor) has begun.

Each amorous male woodcock claims a favorite clearing in which to perform. He advertises his presence and tries to impress female woodcocks with song and a dizzying aerial display.

Leaping from his chosen spot, he ascends, spiraling up in ever-widening circles, his short rounded wings making a twittering sound as he rises. Higher and higher he circles until he is but a rapidly-moving, blurred speck in the diminishing twilight. At the upper limit of his ascent, about 300 feet, he bursts into song with exuberant liquid chirps – a song of pure joy in the spring warmth.

He sings as he returns to earth, wings twittering, sliding side to side with an upwards swoop, and turns at the end of each giant pendulum swing. He looks much like a falling autumn maple leaf caught in a gentle breeze. He zips into the clearing with such speed that it looks as if he forgot to put on his air brakes, yet he lands upright and confident on the exact spot from which he departed. Stomping his feet, he circles and calls the unmistakable peent. Posture erect, he struts about as if to proclaim, "Look at me. See what I can do." Then he's up again to repeat the spectacular display. A female woodcock could not but be impressed.

Spring is the only time that woodcocks become that obvious. After flight displays cease in about four to six weeks, the birds return to their secretive, nocturnal way of life on the forest floor.

Woodcocks are well-camouflaged for life among fallen twigs and strewn leaves. Their predominantly brown back color is broken up with gray and black markings, which give the chunky, short-tailed birds the appearance of dried leaves. Three wide black bands break up the solid buff on the back of a squarish head. The buffy chest is unmarked. When resting during the day, woodcocks blend in so well with their surroundings that they are very difficult to find and are seldom seen unless flushed.

Good camouflage is necessary because woodcocks nest on the ground. The nest is a slight depression surrounded by dead leaves, often located quite a distance from the peenting site. Four buff-colored eggs blotched with darker brown spots and splotches blend with their background. The leaf-colored female incubatesthe eggs alone, sitting on the ground where she is so vulnerable.

As she sits on her nest for 21 days, she is acutely aware of what's happening around her. Proportionately large black eyes set back on the head give her a panoramic view and allow her to see approaching predators. She sits tight on the nest and flushes only at the last instant. She bursts upward in a flurry of noise and commotion, wings twittering while zigging and zagging in her hasty departure through the woods. The unexpected explosion almost underfoot is enough to startle and distract any intruder. She later returns to the nest when danger is past. One brood is raised per year.

A woodcock's bill is its most prominent feature, seeming to cover its entire face. And what an extraordinary bill it is. Tapered and flesh-colored, the bill is about 2 inches long. Unlike most bird bills, the woodcock's is soft and thin with a hard tip that is highly sensitive to touch. When feeding, a woodcock plunges its bill into soft mud and probes. The outer third of the upper mandible is flexible and can raise and curve up as it feels for food. If it touches an earthworm (a major component of a woodcock's diet), the bill seizes the unseen worm and pulls it from the ground. The food works up the long bill, aided by backward-projecting serrations along the upper mandible and by spines at the base of the tongue, and passes into the gullet.

Well-fed woodcocks leave their wooded surroundings, again under cover of darkness, from September into November. Their departure is dependent upon weather conditions. They spend winter in coastal marshes and swamps of the southeastern and southern states. Their return in March is a welcome sign that, despite remaining snow patches and chilly winds, spring is definitely arriving.

Anita Carpenter likes a front-row seat when nature performs near her Oshkosh home.