Center Stage: The American Woodcock
By Jennifer Meikle, Environmental Educator
Although Woodcock Nature Center is named after former Ridgefield First Selectman, J. Mortimer Woodcock, there also happens to be a strange little bird by the same name – J. Mortimer! Just kidding – wouldn’t that be funny though? It’s actually called the American Woodcock, one of the first ground nesting species to return to New England, appearing alongside the Eastern Bluebirds and American Robins at the first signs of spring.
They have a goofy appearance with a dense, squat body, short neck, and an even, straight, long beak. The Woodcock’s feathers camouflage perfectly with the forest floor; the brownish color helps them blend in amongst the leaves and plant debris that they will use to line their nests on the ground. Their eyes are located high on the sides of their head, which gives them rear-view binocular vision so that they can look out for predators while digging for worms to eat. The American Woodcock can actually consume more than their own body weight in earthworms daily! They will rock their bodies back and forth – it kind of looks like a silly dance! Researchers don’t completely understand why they do this; some think that their movement vibrates the ground and disturbs the worms, while others think it’s a behavior to let predators know that they are already aware of them to discourage an attack.
Perhaps the most special and unique thing about the American Woodcock is their courtship display, which happens in late March into April. Just after sunset, the show begins. The male Woodcock performs an aerial display to attract a female mate. It begins at the spot that the male has chosen with a series of repetitive nasally “peent” calls from the ground. This characteristic sound occurs regularly for a few minutes, and then stops suddenly, as the Woodcock takes off at an angle into flight. He circles higher and higher; you can hear the twittering sound of wind moving through the feathers on his wings as he flies. When he reaches about 200 or 300 feet in the air and he is just a distant little spot in the sky, he drops! The Woodcock descends rapidly in zigzags while letting out a musical chirping call until finally returning to his original starting spot, to begin the show all over again and again until the sky becomes completely dark.
Witnessing the unique mating performance of the American Woodcock is an amazing experience. Unfortunately, the population has decreased over several decades. This is likely due to loss of habitat and their general sensitivity to disturbance. They require edge habitats with a transition from open fields to woodlands. Conservation management strategies must be employed to ensure that existing habitat remains suitable for their breeding practices. If you haven’t already, get out there and try to catch a glimpse of a Woodcock displaying and you too will realize how incredible these little birds are, and why we should protect them.
Holland, M., Kaneko, C. (2019). Naturally curious: A photographic field guide and month-by-month journey through the fields, woods, and marshes of New England. Trafalgar Square Books.