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Woodcock of America

Updated on August 2, 2015

European woodcock

'Familiar wild birds ' Swayland 1883
'Familiar wild birds ' Swayland 1883


Another in the series about North American birds the subject under review is the American Woodcock. The article contains historical perceptions of authors, gleaned from bird books of the 1800's and earlier. The American woodcock belongs to the family of birds referred to as the Scolpacidae which comprise the Snipes and Sandpipers. This family contains many species with a fair proportion of them found in North America.

As a rule they have long bills an organ with which they use to probe the soft earth or mud for food. Most of the family are shore birds. The Woodcock of America Scolopax minor {formerly placed in the genus Philohela } is thus named to distinguish the species from the European Woodcock Scolopax rusticola which bears a superficial resemblance to the American species.Early ornithologists claimed they were identical, however, the lower parts of the European species is densely barred with darker waved lines on a lighter back ground while the American species has those parts much lighter.

American woodcock

'Birds of Buzzard's Roost'  -Watson 1907
'Birds of Buzzard's Roost' -Watson 1907

Description of the Woodcock

In appearance the male and female are alike with the exception that the female is larger. The most characteristic part of the birds body is the head and bill, thus I commence with this part of the body. The head, bill and eyes are very large. The bill being two and a half to three inches in length. The eyes are located far back from the bill, and positioned high in the head which allows the bird a greater all round vision. these eyes have exceedingly large pupils which are adapted to see in the dark, a need this bird has, being nocturnal in its habits. Chapman commented that the Woodcock is ' The Owl among Snipes'

On the rear of the head are three black stripes or bands alternating with three others of a pale rufous colour. A brownish black line from the eyes to the bill and another below the eyes.

The body of the bird is stout, the upper parts variegated with pale ash, yellowish rufous being brightest on the flanks. The wings are short and rounded and it appears to be almost without a tail. The legs are feathered down to the knee. The toes are long and divided to the base the hinder one projecting high up. Dr.AK fisher stated " The general appearance of the Woodcock clearly suggests its nocturnal habits, and during the brightness of the day is very seldom seen to fly unless disturbed"

Courtesy of the LabofOrnithology Narrated by Laura Erickson

Lifestyle of the Woodcock

However, the bird may feed in the day if circumstances allow. For example it may well feed in secluded places, or when the weather is cloudy and dismal, or when protected by unusually thick cover. Has darkness cloaks the country the Woodcock will leave its hiding place and the activity increases greatly. It will then visit its feeding grounds in marshes, along stream sides in low meadows or even in the fields of growing corn.

In favourable localities the Woodcock can be heard at dusk flying back and forth, and occasionally the glimmer of its wings can be observed as it alights in the open. In former days when the bird was much more common it was more readily observed from early twilight until dark as one commentator says " To see or hear them flying about the open pastures of springy hillsides of northern New York was not unusual , nor was it a rare event, to flush them from the kitchen garden or barn yard, or even the shrubbery close to the house, where they come in search of food."

The flight of the Woodcock is variable, not only in character but also in swiftness. When the bird is pursued or threatened it is away with a zigzag flight towards the tree tops with an amazing speed and ability. At other times the flight has a regular swift motion characteristic of other members of this group..

American Woodcock is well concealed aided by its plumage

Courtesy of guizmo_68 via Vicpeters. Creative Commons Share Alike 2.0 generic license. originally posted on flickr
Courtesy of guizmo_68 via Vicpeters. Creative Commons Share Alike 2.0 generic license. originally posted on flickr

Breeding and young

Because of the range of the Woodcocks distribution the time of their breeding is varied according to the location in which they occur. In Louisiana and Florida there are records of eggs being found in February. In the mid-west they do not commence until the middle of March.

The nest, such as it is, contains a sparse layer of loose grass among the leaves on the ground. They will choose a more or less hilly situation near to the feeding grounds where it it will be out of danger of rising water. this situation gives the bird the advantage of all round vision, whilst being almost invisible due to its excellent camouflage.

As regards the courtship of the male there is produced a very interesting performance undertaken. Mr. Eugene P. Bicknell describes it in the 'Auk' July 18885 after witnessing the flight of the courting male. " The bird would strike up from amid the shrubbery, with a tremulous, whirring sound of the wings, rising from a spiral course into the air. The spiral varied considerably in pitch, sometimes expanding to sweep far out over the neighboring fields, where a single evolution would carry the bird upward almost to the point of departure. The rapid trilling sound with which it started off as Woodcocks do, continued without interruption during the ascent but gradually became more rapid and as the bird neared its greatest height, passed into pulsations was shorter and faster than the last and took the tremolo to a higher pitch, sounding like a throbbing whirl of fine machinery or suggesting the accelerating, rhythmic sound of a railway car gradually gaining full speed after a stop.

" At last, when it seemed that as if greater rapidity, and descending with increasing swiftness, the bird would break into irregular chippering, almost a warble, the notes sounding louder and more liquid as it neared the earth. Suddenly there would be silence, and a small, dark object would dart past through the dusk, down amid the shrubbery. Then at silent intervals, a single strange nasal 'speat' or 'spueat' which sounded as delivered with a spiteful directness at some offensive object "

At other times the flight of the Woodcock is slow. When flushed from the woods, it rises to a height of the hushes or underwood, and almost instantly drops behind them again at a short distance, and as soon as he touches the ground runs for several yards.

The eggs, generally four have a buff coloured background mottled or spotted with darker shades. As soon as the the hatchlings leave the confinement of their shell they are able to feed themselves, although they remain close to their mother.

Woodcock chick

Courtesy of Jacob Enos via Vicpeters Creative Commons Share Alike 2.0 generic license. originally posted on flickr
Courtesy of Jacob Enos via Vicpeters Creative Commons Share Alike 2.0 generic license. originally posted on flickr

Woodcocks show a strong paternal instinct

The Woodcock displays a remarkable paternal instinct and defends her brood against the odds. John James Audubon wrote of this in his book 'Birds of America' 1840-1844}----

" There is a kind of innocent simplicity in our Woodcock, which has often excited in me a deep feeling of anxiety, when I witnessed the rude and unmerciful attempts of mischevious boys, on meeting a mother bird in vain attempting to preserve her brood from their savage grasp.She scarcely limps, nor does she often flutter along the ground, on such occasions, but with half extended wings, inclining her head to one side, and uttering a soft murmur, she moves to and fro; urging her young to hasten towards some secure spot beyond the reach of their enemies.

Regardless of her own danger, she would to appearance gladly suffer herself to be seized, could she be assured that by such a sacrifice she might ensure the safety of her brood.On one occasion of this kind, I saw a female Woodcock lay her self down on the middle of the road, as if she were dead, while her little ones, five in number, were trying on feeble legs to escape, from a pack of naughty boys, who had already caught one of them, and were kicking it over the dust in barbarous sport. The mother might have shared the same fate, had I not happened to issue from the thicket, and interpose on her behalf"



John James Audubon-Birds of America
John James Audubon-Birds of America


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    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Nice to meet you, and your welcome. Thank you for your kind comments.Best wishes to you.

      aviannovice, Hi Deb they are very elusive birds and being in the main nocturnal make them even harder to encounter in our day time lives. Thank you for visiting and for taking the time to comment. Best wishes to you.

      DDE Thank you for being the first to vistt and for your appreciated comments. Best wishes to you.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 

      5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for sharing the interesting information about the woodcock, D.A.L. I enjoyed reading the historical descriptions of the woodcock as well as your own description.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      5 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Very nicely done. I have yet to see a woodcock.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      5 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      WOODCOCK OF AMERICA sounds an interesting and is most informative hub on this bird, so much to know and you accomplished a well researched hub on it.


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