The American woodcock ranges across the eastern half of North America, from southern Manitoba to Texas’ Gulf shore forests.
T. Edward Nickens
Across the field, ancient oaks stand in silhouette, their bare uppermost branches seemingly snagging tendrils of pink sunset clouds. I stuff my hands in my coat pockets and shiver from the late winter chill as shadows creep across this field in central North Carolina. Suddenly, I hear it: a faint, trilling twitter like the turning of a rusty screw. The sound rises toward the sky, where it seems to hang suspended in the gloaming. And that’s when I see the bird, a fist-sized ball of feathers orbiting high overhead: a woodcock.
The bird scribes two large circles, then suddenly cascades toward the ground like a falling leaf, chirping in the descent. He lands near a trio of tall cedars and struts about with a stiff-legged gait. Then the woodcock catapults toward the gibbous moon again, in an exuberant sky dance designed to attract breeding females.
Witnessing this, the courtship flight of the American woodcock, is one of my favorite moments afield. But few others have shared this experience: Though widely distributed across the central and eastern United States, woodcock are little-known. Bizarre in appearance, with long bills and huge eyes atop their heads, they are also secretive creatures—crouching in dense, mucky bottoms during the day, and emerging to feed and roost in clearings at night. But for all their mystery, one thing is certain about woodcock: They have fallen on hard times.
The American woodcock ranges across the eastern half of North America, from southern Manitoba to Texas’ Gulf shore forests. Woodcock are migratory birds, wintering in the southeastern United States and along the Texas coastal plain, then traveling north, at night, to breeding territory as far away as Newfoundland.
Unfortunately, fewer American woodcock are making the annual journey. Since 1968, the number of courting male woodcock in the eastern states has dropped an average of 2.3 percent each year; in the central states, that figure is about 1.6 percent. The birds’ habitat is evaporating, lost to suburban home development, commercial pine plantations and large farms. And where woodlands remain, woodcock are being squeezed out by aging forests. Like other birds that are beginning to attract attention, woodcock rely on young, regenerating woods—a forest type with few champions.
To understand why woodcock are in trouble, you need to understand the bird. "Woodcock are just full of quirks—they’re a conglomeration of contradictions," says David G. Krementz, a biologist with the Arkansas Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit. For starters, woodcock are classified as shorebirds, but they’ve turned their backs on the coast and live in wet woods and meadows. There they probe for earthworms, of which a woodcock might eat its body weight every day. In fact, from top to bottom, woodcock are designed as worm hunters. Their eyes are perched far atop the skull, so they can see predators while facedown in the dirt. Their ears are in front of their eyes, which could help them hear an earthworm’s underground movements. Their brain is even turned upside down, to make space in the skull for their eyes and ears.
But nothing impresses like their proboscis. The woodcock’s long bill (a female’s bill is about two inches long, a male’s a bit shorter) is tipped with specialized nerve endings that can detect earthworm mucus in soil for 24 hours after a wriggler has wiggled by. The outer third of that probing snout can move independently, like tweezers, to tug a worm from the dirt. Its peculiar appearance and habits have given the woodcock a passel of nicknames: bog-borer, big-eyes, mud bat, wood snipe, night partridge and timberdoodle.
Unfortunately, the woodcock’s reliance on earthworms and its habitat needs conspire against it. Woodcock require brushy fields and small forest openings with young shrubby undergrowth, what biologists call "early successional habitat." Protected from predators by leaves and saplings, woodcock can feed safely, and they find an abundance of earthworms in the rich soil.
For much of the last century, abandoned farmland in the Northeast provided such habitat, as pastures and fields filled up with thickets. But those woods are growing old, and shrubby undergrowth is disappearing. In the bird’s primary breeding region in the Northeast, says Daniel G. McAuley, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, "seventy percent of the landscape is forested, but the great majority of that is mature forest. And there are few old fields. Abandoned farmland is now covered up with housing developments and shopping malls. That’s bad news for a bird like the woodcock."
When they head south in the fall, timberdoodles face other problems. First, "the birds have to fly an urban gauntlet," Krementz points out. "Then they arrive on their wintering grounds, and what do they find? Bottomland hardwoods turned into cotton and soybean fields, or pine plantations where natural forests used to be. In many places, it’s just a wasteland as far as woodcock are concerned."
One of the nagging questions about woodcock is the role hunting might play in the bird’s decline. McAuley is overseeing a project tracking woodcock on both hunted and non-hunted sites in Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. "We’ve had low survival rates on some unhunted sites, and high survival rates on hunted sites," he reports. "We still have work to do, but so far it seems to indicate that hunting does not have a big impact."
If there is a silver lining to the dark cloud hanging over the woodcock, it is that the bird responds well to habitat management. At Maine’s Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge, scientists in the early 1980s started making small clear-cuts across the forest. In six years, woodcock numbers more than doubled. "If you work with the habitat," McAuley says, "woodcock numbers will come back up."
Now, scientists say, the challenge is to find publicly acceptable ways to give woodcock a helping hand. "People hear the word ´clear-cut´ and they have this image of Western-styled clear-cuts, where forests are mowed down to the horizon," McAuley says. "But every clear-cut doesn’t have to look like a bombed-out area. We need small forest openings in these woods."
And not just for the woodcock, he adds: Many migratory songbirds depend on early-successional habitat. "Golden-winged warblers, chestnut-sided warblers, black-throated blue and prairie warblers, Acadian and alder flycatchers—all of these are birds in decline," says McAuley. "And all need early-successional habitat within a forested landscape."
Historically, such fields and clearings were provided by fire, insect outbreak or small-scale farm clearing, says Mark Johns of Partners in Flight, a bird-conservation consortium. Now, he says, "they are a lacking component in the landscape. We’re moving towards the trim, structured lawns of suburbia or the older forests of pines and hardwoods. And when we do cut down trees, we build something where the woods used to be. That’s no good for woodcock, and no good for wildlife."
Increasingly, conservationists say, farmers and owners of woodlands will need to provide the kind of breeding habitat that woodcock require. "Private landowners will have to step up to the plate," says Johns.
Is the bird worth the effort? To find out for yourself, my advice is to do what I did that late winter afternoon in the rolling hills of North Carolina: Locate a singing ground, just as the sun touches the far horizon. If you’re lucky, the answer will come about the time the barred owls call, as the woodcock dance across salmon-colored skies.
North Carolina journalist T. Edward Nickens wrote about ginseng poaching
in the February/March 2001 issue.