You can call this squat little avian denizen of the forest a wood snipe, bog sucker, brush snipe, Labrador twister, mud bat or even timberdoodle. Indeed, any of those names will work, but to the world over, the bird is Scolopax minor, aka American woodcock.
Both male and female woodcock sport cryptic plumage to blend in perfectly with their woodland environment. Very little difference exists between the sexes’ coloration. As a forest bird that spends much of its time on the ground, being superbly camouflaged is paramount to their survival. Weasels, foxes, bobcats, hawks and owls have all been known to dine on woodcock.
A diminutive bird with an overall length of about 11 inches, including its 3-inch long bill, weighs in at a mere 7 ounces. The bill of a woodcock is especially noteworthy. Aside from the bill’s conspicuous length, a woodcock has the ability to open and close just the tip of its beak. This enables the bird to easily grasp its favorite food, earthworms, as it probes in tweezer-like precision to capture slippery worms.
Even the eyes of woodcock are specially designed. Set far back and high on the sides of its head, a woodcock has perfect unobstructed vision as it submerges its beak into the earth while simultaneously on the lookout for predators. This physical arrangement affords the woodcock with 360 degree vision!
Woodcock migrate to Minnesota’s suitable coverts in early spring from their wintering grounds in Louisiana, along the Gulf Coast, and northern Mexico. Male woodcocks show up first and begin in earnest to establish “singing grounds” in anticipation of arriving hens. It is from these singing grounds that the acrobatic aerial and musical displays are launched from by breeding male birds at dusk and dawn throughout the mating season.
A male woodcock performs from his singing ground every day for about 30 to 60 minutes during the first and last hours of light. A loud series of nasal sounding vocalizations (peents) marks the beginning of the male woodcock’s repertoire. The whole performance, from start to finish, is designed to attract hen woodcock. Other male birds are not tolerated and are vigorously pursued if one should happen to stray within the owner’s territory.
After a string of peents has so satisfied the vocalizing male, he departs in flight. As he flies upward in a spiraling pattern, a twittering sound is produced from his specially designed narrow outer three primary wing feathers. In fact, it is just this morphologic difference between his outer primaries and that of the hen that gives human observers a clue as to the sex of the bird in hand. Female outer primaries are not as narrow.
A male bird continues his twittering upward flight some 100 to 300 feet directly above from where he flushed from. At the apex of his aerial display he begins his descent and, with it, a whole new series of sounds. As he flutters downward in corkscrew fashion, the male woodcock produces a musical and warbling chirping call, stopping only when he is near to landing. Shortly thereafter he begins peenting once more, followed by yet another flight display from nearly the same spot every time. Hen woodcock are attracted to the commotion and mating takes place at individual males’ singing grounds.
Characteristic of many shorebirds, hen woodcocks lay just four eggs in a cup-shaped depression on the ground. Incubation lasts around three weeks, after which the precocial young hatch and begin following their mother as she helps the brood locate insects. And in only a month and a half the full-grown chicks are completely on their own.
Although known by many a name, the American woodcock is arguably one of the most unique Minnesota birds. Annually pursued by hunters and birders alike and migrating in surprisingly large numbers each spring and fall, these special shorebirds -- from early spring to late autumn -- call Minnesota home as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.