Woodcock (Scolopax minor)

Woodcock (Scolopax minor)

Common Names – Woodcock, Timberdoodle, woody, bog snipe
Organizations working for woodcock conservation are: Ruffed Grouse Society, National Audobon Society

Woodcock Description -The woodcock is a small, rotund bird with a long bill and large eyes positioned far back on the head. Well camouflaged, the woodcock is mottled with brown, black and rust colors, and has black barring across the top of the head. The sexes bear a close resemblance, although the female is slightly larger and has a longer bill. Juveniles resemble adults by early fall. Woodcock are solitary birds, however, they may be found in small groups during the spring and fall migration. Click here for Woodcock identification tips from the U.S.G.S.

Woodcock Size – Males measure 10 to 11 inches long and weigh 4 to 7 ounces; females, 11 to 12 inches and 6 to 9 ounces.

Woodcock Habitat
– Woodcock are migratory birds. They range over much of the eastern half of the United States and Canada. The birds favor moist woodlands with streams and swampy areas. Click on for information on woodcock habitat management from the University of Georgia

Woodcock Food – This bird feeds almost exclusively on earthworms, grubs and other invertebrates, using its long bill to probe in soft soil. The bill has a flexible tip, and the tongue and upper mandible are rough, letting the bird grasp its food underground. Because its eyes are set so far back on the head, the woodcock can easily spot predators while feeding.

Woodcock Breeding – The male is known for its courtship flight. After arriving on the breeding grounds, he establishes and defends a territory, usually along the edge of a field or woodland opening, The courtship flight, performed at dawn and dusk, begins on the ground with the male making “bzzt, bzzt, bzzt” sounds while strutting about and bobbing his head. Click to listen to a woodcock call. Next, he flies vertically in decreasing spirals, levels off and circles high above the, finally descending to the ground while uttering chickaree, chickaree calls. The male usually mates with more than one female

The female nests and raises the young on her own. The nest is a shallow depression in the ground, near a bush, tree or thicket that is scraped by the female. She usually lays three to four buff colored eggs that hatch in twenty-one days.

Woodcock Population – Declining – logging and land development on the bird’s breeding grounds is responsible for the diminishing bird count. Click for recent population trends for woodcock and conservation go to Aududon Society Watchlist or American Woodcock Status as of June 2003 from the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
For additional information on the American Woodcock:
Woodcock information and population studies from Pennsylvania Game Commission
Wildlife information series Woodcock from Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection

Woodcock Hunting – The principal breeding range of these upland birds reaches across eastern Minnesota, Ontario, Wisconsin, Michigan, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Maine. Sizable, but smaller, breeding populations spend the summer in Ohio and to the east, from parts of New England down to West Virginia. Few of the birds breed in latitudes below that, but most of them winter in the Southeast, as far south as central Florida and across the Gulf Coast into eastern Texas. The most enormous wintering concentrations are found in Louisiana.

The birds migrate along three main flyways – one down the Atlantic Seaboard, one west of the Appalachians, and one through the Mississippi Valley. The middle corridor is used by the largest numbers of woodcock, but there’s woodcock hunting (and usually good hunting) in nearly 40 states and also in Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island. New Brunswick rivals Louisiana as a famous haven for woodcock and woodcock hunters. The yearly woodcock, are also impressive in Wisconsin, Michigan, New York, and New Jersey.

The birds migrate along three main flyways – one down the Atlantic Seaboard, one west of the Appalachians, and one through the Mississippi Valley. The middle corridor is used by the largest numbers of woodcock, but there’s woodcock hunting (and usually good hunting) in nearly 40 states and also in Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island. New Brunswick rivals Louisiana as a famous haven for woodcock and woodcock hunters. The yearly woodcock, are also impressive in Wisconsin, Michigan, New York, and New Jersey.

Migration is accomplished principally by a long chain of short flights, but here and there along the way, open water or a lack of good habitat necessitates flights requiring great stamina. The birds tend to gather in “staging areas” and rest before undertaking these nonstop flights. Thus, large numbers of woodcock gather in well known locations, resting, feeding heavily to build strength, and perhaps awaiting good flying weather. Probably the most famous of these spots is Cape May, New Jersey, where great swarms of woodcock rest during the hunting season before making the long crossing over Delaware Bay. To anyone familiar with typical woodcock coverts, the bushy barrens behind the Cape May beaches look like mediocre habitat at best, but the hunting there can be marvelous.

Woodcock are protected by the federal regulations governing the hunting of migratory birds. The open seasons are therefore set within federal guidelines, and these seasons are timed to coincide with the presence of “flight birds” as well as “natives”.

Usually (though certainly not invariably) woodcock flush close. They’re not very fast fliers, and if you hit one with only a couple of pellets, it will fall. Why, then, are woodcock missed so often? For one thing, the target is small – hardly bigger than an average man’s fist. For another, it will most often rise steeply and erratically, veering from side to side, sometimes spiraling like a corkscrew before leveling and flicking away. There’s also the difficulty inherent in one very common type of woodcock habitat – high brush, dense alder runs, or some other thicket of shrubs and saplings. Many woodcock are taken in cover not quite that dense, but dense enough to present a gun-swinging problem. Hence, it helps to have a light, short-barreled gun.

The brown and black mottling of a woodcock’s plumage is almost invisible when a bird is on the ground, whether it’s in brushy vegetation or sitting right in the open on a brown forest mat of leaves and twigs. When I walk in over a dog’s point, I mentally draw a line from the animal’s nose to give myself a clearer notion of where the bird will rise. Even so, I’m often a little surprised when a woodcock goes up closer than I expect or occasionally farther away or off to one side. Flushes can be still more surprising when you’re without a dog. Sometimes you hear a bird before you see it. The air passing through and around the three narrow outer primaries of each wing makes a light, twittering whistle (a sound some hunters mistakenly believe to be a vocally produced call). With or without a dog, I use my ears as well as my eyes to hunt. I also do a lot of ground watching because, even in fairly thick cover, it’s often possible to see a woodcock whirring upward but still very close to the ground. Those you’re slow to see are the ones most often missed.

The woodcock’s long, slim bill is the most reliable way to tell a male from a female, whether you’re truly interested or just want to impress a hunting companion. A male’s bill is rarely longer than 2 inches; a female’s almost always exceeds 2 inches. A male usually has a smaller body, too. In early October, a typical male weighs just a trifle more than 5 ounces, while a typical female weighs 7 ounces or a little more.

That peculiar bill whose flexible upper mandible hinges open and shut about midway out from the head is used to drill into the ground for earthworms. Very sensitive nerve endings in the bill enable the bird to feel for its hidden prey, and perhaps to sense it in some other way akin to taste or smell. Another reason for a woodcock hunter to be a ground-watcher is that a sprinkling of little round “borings” or “drill holes” in a small area indicates a promising covert where birds have been feeding heavily. Another kind of sign, much more easily and often spotted, is woodcock “chalk”-white spatters of liquid droppings about an inch across, quite conspicuous on the ground, on dry leaves, or on still-green undergrowth.

Many hunters who have seen the birds flying at dusk believe that woodcock are strictly nocturnal feeders, flushed during daylight only from the resting, watering, and hiding places. The birds do feed at night, but they also feed very actively at dawn, noon, and dusk. Early morning, midday, and late afternoon are good times to hunt the food-rich spots, and at other times the brush and woods are promising. However, the best habitat usually has a close mixture of feeding and resting grounds-which are often one and the same. In productive habitat, therefore, I’ve never found that the time of day mattered a great deal.

Good habitat has a birdy look about it. Bear in mind that the birds must have water and worms. Also bear in mind that worms don’t comprise their entire diet, except perhaps for short periods or in unusually worm-rich earth. They also eat insects and a few seeds and berries (among which, sedge seeds and blackberries are their favorites). Look for seeps, springs, brooks, and marshy bottomlands. Look for dark, soft earth with shrubs, young trees, and openings as well as thickets. Alders and young birches are well known for woodcock flushes because they grow in the right kind of soil and are the right size. The best stands of trees are only 10 to 20 feet high, growing close and rather tangled for concealment purposes, but with open or light ground cover so that the birds can drill for worms. In New Brunswick, most woodcock are flushed from alders, gray birches, and evergreens. A study in Maine showed nearly half of all flushes to be in alder runs. A Pennsylvania study indicated that when the birds weren’t in the alder bottoms, they were mostly on slopes with lots of crabapple or hawthorne. In Louisiana, the woodcock are mostly moved from among pines or alluvial bottomlands.

Where the types of coverts just described are lacking, or if they fail to produce flushes, other bird-attracting spots can be sought. The woodcock is closely related to the snipe and belongs to an order of shorebirds, but evolution has adapted it to a more or less upland life and a dependence on earthworms. Life in the uplands governs some of its behavior patterns. For example, on hot fall days, woodcock seek the humid coolness of deeply shaded resting places, and they’re often flushed from beneath evergreens. In cool weather, they’re often up on sun-warmed slopes, especially slopes that have concealing stands of birch or aspen. Bogs are a common type of shorebird habitat, and boggy fields often have worm-rich earth, so woodcock frequent such fields if escape cover is nearby. Sometimes they’re also found on cropland-for instance, cornfields adjacent to alders or similar cover. In old orchards, the fallen apples enrich the soil; I don’t know if the richness is what attracts worms, but usually they can be found there in abundance. Old orchards are good places to check for woodcock in the fall and dig for bait in the spring. So are overgrown pastures, where cows, rather than apple trees, drop an enrichment upon the soil.

For Woodcock hunting season and other hunter information check out:

Woodcock hunting information and population status from Michigan Department of Natural Resources