American Woodcock

The American woodcock (Scolopax minor) is a small, plump shorebird about the size of a robin. The woodcock or timber doodle as it is sometimes called, prefers to spend most of its time at ground level in young brushy forest habitats and old fields preferring damp to wet locations. The whitish brown plumage of the woodcock provides excellent camouflage in these brushy areas.

Woodcock have a very long bill that it uses to probe for earthworms its favorite food. Besides earthworms woodcock targets small insects, grubs, and other invertebrates such as snails. Woodcock have a very fast digestive system that enables them to consume nearly their entire bodyweight in a single day. The eyes of the woodcock are located on the side of the head which enables them to have almost circular peripheral vision. The long bill, eyes, serrated beak, and orientation of the brain in these birds appear to be adaptations for probing the ground for earthworms and other food.

The peak activity times of these birds in during the early morning hours and at dusk when they are in search of food. American Woodcock are typically found in the eastern part of North America extending from the Canadian Provinces down to the Gulf States. Those woodcock found in the northern part of the range will migrate south during the winter. Woodcock are year round residents throughout most of Maryland.

The male woodcock has an unusual courtship display. During courtship the male flies 200 – 300 feet in the air then spirals down to the ground attracting mates with this aerial display and an unusual courtship song. The woodcock has only one brood per year consisting of 3 – 4 chicks. Fortunately these chicks grow fast and are well camouflaged so that chick mortality is fairly low compared to other birds.

Populations of American woodcock have shown a steady decline since the 1970’s. Researchers estimate that woodcock numbers are decreasing 1.2% per year since that high water mark. The main reason for this decline is the loss of old field/young forest habitat. The loss of this habitat is due mostly to clearing for other land uses or that the young forest matures into the traditional high forest condition. Along with woodcock nearly 50 species of birds including grouse, whip-or-will, indigo bunting, and golden winged-warbler are declining due to habitat loss.

In 2008 a number of conservation groups and researchers developed the Woodcock Conservation Plan. The purpose of this plan is to detail the reasons for declining populations, and develop a strategy for the restoration of woodcock habitat throughout it native range. The plan calls for regional initiatives spearheaded by experienced wildlife biologists designed to provide technical assistance to public and private landowners on how to create desirable habitat. Public and private conservation groups are also tasked with monitoring local woodcock populations and habitat development. The plan also indicates that 50 demonstration areas should be developed across woodcock’s home range to assist with this effort. The plan states that nearly 20 million acres of habitat needs to be created to restore woodcock to their pre 1970’s level. In Maryland it was estimated that we need to establish 32,500 acres of young forest by 2022 to stop the decline, and create 47,700 acres of new forest by 2022 to eventually return woodcock to their historical levels. Maryland has active programs designed to create brushy young forest/old field habitats for woodcock, golden winged warbler and the other animals that are dependent on this habitat.

Article by Mike Kay, FCFCDB member

Nature note for