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American woodcock remains elusive and interesting

October 26, 2016
By JUSTIN A. LEVINE - Outdoors Writer ( , Lake Placid News

With names like the timberdoodle, bog sucker, mud snipe and mud bat, the American woodcock can maybe draw some immature giggles when it's mentioned. But this reclusive little bird is a fascinating addition to the Adirondack wildlife repertoire.

The only woodcock native to North America, it is in the same family as common shore birds like sandpipers. But the woodcock spends most of its time along lake shores and in young-growth forests.

In addition to being rarely seen, the woodcock is also known for its unusual appearance as well. Its beak stretches a seemingly long way out from its head, and the tip of the beak is soft and flexible. Woodcocks mostly eat earth worms, and the long beak is ideal for probing forest soils. According the state Department of Environmental Conservation, the woodcock can eat 8 to 12 ounces of worms each day. The bird itself weighs roughly the same, with females being larger than males.

Article Photos

This American woodcock photo was taken in 2011 at Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge in Rhode Island.
Photo — U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

In addition to the uncharacteristically long beak, the woodcock is able to move just the tip of its upper beak while the beak is under ground searching for worms.

The woodcock has two other features that make it different from other birds of the state. First, its large eyes are set relatively high on its head, giving it almost 360 degrees of vision. Since the bird spends most of its time on the ground, having its eyes high up on its head also gives it a good chance of spotting predators while it digs in the ground.

The other thing about a woodcock's head that sets it apart is that its ears are in the front of its head. The ears are situated between the eyes and above the beak, and while not obviously apparent at a glance, the placement of the ears is just another symptom of something that lies deeper.

According to the DEC, the inside of a woodcock's head is just as unique as the outside. An article from 2006 in the DEC's Conservationist magazine says, "The brain of an American woodcock is unique among birds. The cerebellum, which controls muscle coordination and body balance, is located below the rest of the brain and above the spinal column. For most birds, the cerebellum occupies the rear of the skull.

"One theory suggests that as the woodcock evolved, its eyes moved back in the skull, its bill lengthened and the nostrils approached the base of the bill, allowing for better ground-probing abilities. As a result, the brain was rearranged, and the modern bird, in essence, has an upside-down brain."

Male woodcocks, while reclusive, can be seen more regularly in the spring when they are trying to attract a mate.

The DEC says "each spring, male woodcock perform an unusual courtship ritual in an attempt to attract mates. At dusk, a male will sit on the ground in an opening or small field and repeatedly utter a low, nasal, almost insect-like 'peent.'

"He then takes off low and spirals upward on whistling wings to heights of 100-200 feet before spiraling back down and landing near where he took off. He makes a chirping sound during this downward spiral. Males repeat this act again and again until well after dark."

Once mating is complete, the female will lay one egg per day on the ground. She will typically lay four eggs total and about three weeks later the eggs will hatch. The chicks grow quickly, and the DEC says that within a month of hatching, it is hard to tell chicks apart from adults.

Woodcock populations have been declining, but DEC still has a hunting season for the game bird. DEC's hunting season for the bird runs from Oct. 1 to Nov. 14 this year.

The Conservationist article goes on to say that "hunting woodcock is not for the faint of heart. The habitat of these secretive birds is usually very thick and difficult to walk through. As such, woodcock hunters often go out with a well-trained dog, which makes it easier to find the birds."



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