Backyard Birding: Get to Know the Remarkable, Crepuscular American Woodcock
By Lee Halasz
Lee Halasz is a native of Australia and is a former conservation professional with the Queensland State Government. He and his family now reside in western Massachusetts, and he volunteered his time with us in 2015. This spring, we feature a series of bird stories Lee wrote to celebrate #birdyear.
The American woodcock is one of the first migratory birds to return north for the season, and the male’s spectacular mating flight is worth a glimpse – but to see it, you need to adopt some of this bird’s more crepuscular habits!
Ever since I first heard the word ‘crepuscular,’ it has been a favorite of mine. It means ‘active at dawn and dusk’ and is often used to describe wildlife activity. Many mammals are crepuscular, and certainly any human outside at these times of day will attest to how magic dawn and dusk are.
The American woodcock is a largely crepuscular, ground-dwelling bird in the shorebird family. Few would doubt that is strange looking, with a long beak, big eyes and a large head. But it is also beautiful in its own right, much as pelicans and toucans are beautiful.
Strange in More Ways Than One
Like many of its shorebird relatives, the woodcock has a long flexible bill for feeding. It consumes a variety of invertebrates, but especially earthworms. Its large eyes are uniquely positioned on its large head, allowing the woodcock to see in most directions at once, probably very useful for detecting danger while its head is down feeding.
I have seen a woodcock during daylight hours, and it slowly retreated away from me, but with its amazing head and eye configuration, it was watching me every step of the way.
While most of its relatives spend their time at the edges of water bodies, the woodcock lives in and around moist vegetation, especially thickets and regenerating forests adjacent to open areas.
In summer it is found over most of eastern North America, but in fall the northern populations migrate south, and in winter the species is largely found in the southeastern U.S. In spring, woodcock are among the earliest migrants to return to and breed in the northern parts of their range.
While American woodcock are generally quite cryptic, the display flight that the males perform at dusk in spring brings the species into prominence. A male will launch into flight over an open area – circling, fluttering and zig-zagging high in the air, all while his outer wing feathers produce a loud twittering sound.Unfortunately, woodcock populations have declined by about half over the last four decades. The growth of thickets and young forest into mature forest is believed to be the primary reason for their decline. While mature forest is great habitat for many wildlife species, American woodcock and numerous other types of wildlife, can’t live in mature forest. Over the last century there has been a trend toward less disturbance (natural and intentional) of forests, which has resulted in reduced habitat for woodcock and some other declining fauna such as golden-winged warbler and New England cottontail.
Fortunately there is growing recognition of the need for more young forest in our landscapes. The Young Forest Project promotes thoughtful forest disturbance to create regenerating habitat, and several organizations specifically advocate for American woodcock habitat, such as through The American Woodcock Conservation Plan.
So, there is an introduction to our crepuscular, forest-dwelling ‘shorebird,’ with twittering wing feathers. Now is the season when males are displaying. May they grace moist young forest near you.