What is a woodcock?
The Seneca Indians believed that the Creator made the woodcock from the leftover parts of every other bird. They are, indeed, a combination of features unique in God's creation! The American woodcock, scolopax minor, is a shorebird that lives in forests. It is more closely related to plovers and snipes than to grouse or other forest or upland birds. In order to accomodate eyes which are set far back in the head and provide an expanded field of vision, the woodcock's brain is upside-down!
Measuring 10-12 inches in length (a little longer than a bobwhite quail) and having a standing height of about five inches, a woodcock's wingspread can be up to twenty inches. Body conformation might be described as "portly"--short, heavy, and having a thick neck and a large head; if they were man-sized, they'd make excellent lineman on a football team. The most striking feature of a woodcock is the bird's long, thin bill. Sensitive nerve endings in the lower third of the bill help the woodcock locate its preferred food source: earthworms. The bill is prehensile--which means a special bone-muscle arrangement allows the tip of the upper bill, or mandible, to be opened while the bill is immersed underground while searching for food. Both the underside of the mandible and the long tongue are rough-surfaced to allow slippery prey to be extracted from the ground. The female's bill length is generally two and three-quarters of an inch or longer while the male's bill is usually less than two and one-half inches in length. Woodcock weights vary between the sexes as well as at different times of the year. Females average 7.6 ounces compared to 6.2 ounces for a male. Females can be up to approximately a third larger than males.
Woodcock are migratory and head south once the ground freezes and they cannot find food. They are one of the first birds to return to Pennsylvania in the spring, often actually beating that season by reappearing in the state in early- to mid-February. Males usually return several weeks before the females and spend their time locating and laying claim to "singing grounds," which are open areas where the males can perform their mating ritual in the hopes of attracting receptive females. When the light level reaches precisely 15 candle power at either dusk or dawn, the on-ground male begins the ritual with a peent--a sound intended to be most alluring to a female woodcock. The male eventually takes off and flys up to two-three hundred feet on twittering wings where it then begins a zig-zag back to earth while issuing a liquid, warbling sound during the descent. Females seek out the males on the singing grounds with most breeding in Pennsylvania occuring from early March to mid May.
Woodcock of both sexes can breed before they are a year old. Hens usually nest within one hundred and fifty yards of the singing grounds where they mated. Little is done in the way of nest preparation; a typical nest is a slight depression in the ground in dead leaves. Woodcock typically nest in Pennsylvania from late March into June. A female will lay one egg a day until she completes her clutch which normally numbers four eggs. Eggs are quite large for such a diminutive-sized bird and measure 38x29 mm.
Incubation takes 19-22 days and the woodcock chicks split the eggs lengthwise to get out--something that is unique among birds. The chicks are precocial and are able to leave the nest within a few hours of hatching. They grow very rapidly and can fly short distances after just two weeks. At the end of just four weeks they are almost fully grown, look like adults, and can fly strongly. Compared to most gamebirds woodcock have a low potential productivity. A female raises only one brood per year and the brood consists of four, and sometimes only three, chicks. The species does have a high nesting success rate of 60-75 percent, as well as a relatively low juvenile mortality rate.
Thousand of wings are sent each year by successful woodcock hunters to the United States Department of the Interior's Division of Migratory Bird Management at the Patuxent Research Center in Laurel, Maryland to be examined both for age and sex at an annual "wing bee." A determination of the adult to yearling ratio can be gleaned from the wings and this ratio enables the United States Fish and Wildlife service to gauge annual productivity of the woodcock and aids them in setting the framework and the guidelines for hunting seasons for woodcock across their range.
Former PGC Biologist and WL of PA Technical Liason Bill Palmer examining a woodcock wing for aging and sexing at a recent "Wing Bee"
What sort of habitat does a woodcock need?
Woodcock require habitat that is earthworm friendly, as that is their major food source. Old fields reverting to forest are likely places to find woodcock. Because they trundle around on short, stubby legs, woodcock look for areas where they can walk about relatively easily but where there is some overhead cover to shield them from avian predators: early-successional forest meets these requirements. Woodcock are frequently found along streams in moist, fertile bottomland, and aspen and alder--which frequent and enhance such places--are often indicators that such a place might hold woodcock. In Pennsylvania and much of their range, habitat loss is the major factor contributing to their decline in numbers over the past several decades.
What can I do to help the woodcock?
Many people have woodcock living on their land and they don't even know it. Identifying possible woodcock habitat on your land and then determining if any birds are using it is the first step one might take, on a personal basis. If birds are present, habitat might be enhanced to better suite the birds. If no birds are present but there is potential habitat which might be created and managed to provide a home for woodcock, then work can be done to accomplish that.
If you do not have land which might someday hold woodcock but would still like to be involved in habitat work, there are numerous habitat improvement projects being done throughout Pennsylvania which could use your help. Woodcock Limited of Pennsylvania has been working on a Comprehensive Management Plan for the 5,000 + acres in and surrounding the PPL Montour Preserve in Montour County. We have already had field days there where members have done hands-on habitat work to help the woodcock. There will be other work days at the Preserve Project, as well as at other Projects, where we could use your help. Contact us for more information if you're interested in helping.
The other thing you can do to help the woodcock in Pennsylvania is to join Woodcock Limited of Pennsylvania today and let your voice be heard!