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Soil Sidekicks – American Woodcock (Timberdoodle)

July 21, 2015

One of our Soil Sidekicks is particularly good at hiding. So good, in fact, that it can be almost impossible to spot one huddling in the grasses of a field at the forest’s edge.

Meet the AmericAmerican Woodcock (Scolopax minor)an woodcock (Scolopax minor), also known as the timberdoodle. This plump little bird’s beautiful gray, black and brown feathers serve as the perfect camouflage in its natural habitat of brush near the edge of the woods. The American woodcock’s chest and side feathers are characterized by a rich range of colors from yellowish-white to deep tan, and its legs are short and brown or gray.

This little scout has large, wide-set black eyes used for scanning the skies for predators. It has one of the largest sight ranges of any bird, and can see 360 degrees around its head – even behind it. The woodcock is usually solitary, and it is crepuscular, meaning it is most active at dawn and dusk in order to avoid predators.

American Woodcock (Scolopax minor)

American Woodcock (Scolopax minor)

One of the most noticeable features of the woodcock is its long, straight bill used for probing in the soil for prey. These inquisitive birds primarily feed on earthworms, which make up more than 90 percent of their diet, so they spend a lot of time searching in and around soft soils for their favorite foods. Their unique bills are prehensile, meaning that unlike most birds, the woodcock can flex the upper half of its bill (mandible) while using it to investigate the ground. This motion resembles a “yawn” and helps woodcocks hunt slippery earthworms in the soil, since the birds cannot fully open their long bills while they are probing underground. The tip of the bird’s bill also has nerves to help it locate worms crawling around in the earth. One study suggests that these earth detectives are even capable of ‘tasting’ the soil in order to find their favorite meals.

When searching for food, woodcocks will often walk with a funny ‘bob’ that resembles a dance. It is thought that this motion of rocking the body back and forth while stepping heavily with the front foot causes worms to move around in the soil, making them more easily detectable. This funny dance-like movement is also part of the male’s courtship display.

Specialized flight feathers on an American Woodcock specimen

Specialized flight feathers on American Woodcock specimens

The male woodcock’s famous courtship show begins with a distinct “peenk” call around dawn or dusk. After “peenking” and doing his dance, he will take off into the air to fly around while singing a song to attract a mate. While descending in an elaborate zig-zag pattern, the bachelor bird creates a twittering sound as air whistles through his highly modified outer flight feathers on his wings. When he lands, the male will “dance” for any females (hens) who have flown in to watch his display.

After mating, the hen will make a shallow nest on the ground in leaf litter, where she typically lays four eggs. When a predator approaches the nest, she will lie perfectly still, hoping that her excellent camouflage will keep her out of sight. If that doesn’t work, she will put on a show much like the woodcock’s cousin, the killdeer – the hen will flush from the nest and pretend to be injured in order to draw the danger away. Although male woodcocks put on quite a show for hens, they do not assist in defending the nest or raising the chicks – indeed, they continue to dance and display to attract other females.

When the chicks hatch, they are precocial, meaning that they are ready to leave the nest within just a few hours of emerging from the egg. At around two weeks of age, they are capable of flying short distances and look like adults. Young woodcocks will follow their mothers closely for about five weeks, learning to hunt for worms and survive on their own until they are fully grown and become independent.

American Woodcock specimen

American Woodcock specimen

Their closest relatives are shorebirds such as sandpipers and snipes, but woodcocks are found closer inland near wet thickets, brushy swamps, and agricultural areas. They can be found as far north as Canada during warmer months and as far south as Florida during the winter. These birds are present all across North Carolina year-round, but primarily live in the Coastal Plain and the Piedmont. They are sensitive to the cold, so populations migrate south as the weather turns chillier. However, as the weather warms again, their northward migration signals springtime in many areas of the Eastern United States.

Each February, the Wake Audubon Society hosts the annual Woodcock Watch to scout out this Soil Sidekick – watch their webpage for more information. If you hang around the edge of the woods at dusk or dawn this summer, you may be lucky enough to see this little bird dancing.

Soil Sidekicks is an inside scoop starring animals that live in and around the soil. Did you know that there are more living creatures in a shovelful of rich soil than there are people on the planet? Get the dirt on where the Sidekicks live and discover more about the soil that sustains us at Dig It! The Secrets of Soil.

Claire Carrington is a Museum Public Relations intern, and currently a senior at Campbell University.

Thanks to John Gerwin, Research Curator of Ornithology and John Connors, Former Coordinator of the Naturalist Center for information and guidance.

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