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Winter 2012

Urban Jungle

The changing natural world at our doorsteps | Illustration and text by Patterson Clark      

February 21, 2012

The woodcock

A.k.a night partridge, timberdoodle, bog sucker

Exploding into flight with stout, whistling wings, a chunky, robin-size bird leaves behind a bare patch where it was roosting on the ground during a light snowfall.

Flushing an American woodcock can be a startling experience. The half-pound birds are well-camouflaged and rest motionless on the ground until potential danger is only a step away. The bird's large, set-back eyes scan a 360-degree view — so they aren't the ones being surprised.

The prehensile bill of a woodcock

From the sandpiper family, woodcocks have adapted to brushy woodland environments, including urban thickets. Instead of probing sand or mud flats for food, these solitary woodland sandpipers plunge their three-inch bills into loose, damp soil in search of invertebrates, mainly earthworms. The bird can flex its upper bill near the tip, allowing it to nab prey from the loamy depths.

Although some woodcocks spend winter in the Washington area, more arrive from points south in February, when males begin their courtship displays at dawn and dusk.

Standing in a clearing, a male calls out a buzzy peeent! He shifts position and peeents again. After a few calls, he takes to the air, ascending in wider and wider circles until he's hundreds of feet up, at which point he begins chirping and flutters back down to the same spot — or next to a fascinated female — and replays the display.

After mating, a female is on her own. In a slight depression on the floor of a thicket, she lays about four eggs, which normally hatch in late March. A few hours after hatching, chicks follow their mom through the brush, becoming independent before May.

Woodcocks are in decline. Their North American population has fallen by about 1 percent every year since 1968, probably because of a loss of habitat: fewer old fields sprouting dense, young forests.

But one agricultural transformation may help the bird. More farmers are employing no-till planting methods in their fields, a practice that vastly increases earthworms in cultivated soils, where woodcocks are known to feed, usually before sunrise and after sunset.

SOURCES: University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, www.ebird.org, Wildlife Management Institute, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Life Histories of Familiar North American Birds, Megadrilogica

American Woodcock, Scolopax minor