For the Birds Radio Program: Anticipating Woodcocks
Every year when the equinox arrives, even as snow covers the ground, I can feel my heart stirring with anticipation of the night when I’ll hear my first woodcock of the year. American Woodcocks are one of my favorite birds for many reasons. Of course, I find every bird fascinating, but woodcocks really are extraordinary creatures. They’ve got the distinction of being the bird that can fly forward without stalling out or hovering at the slowest speed—at best they can go only about 16 to 28 miles per hour, and have been clocked going only 6 miles per hour in steady flight. Imagining traveling a couple of thousand miles at that speed makes their migration pretty amazing.
Over 75 percent of a woodcock’s diet is earthworms. A woodcock can detect and pull out worms that are almost three inches down in the soil thanks to its exquisitely specialized bill. The long length is obviously important, but so is the sensitive tip, rich with nerve endings which help the woodcock to feel out its subterranean food. Once a worm is detected, the woodcock doesn’t need to open its entire mouth to grab it. Not only would that leave the bird with a mouthful of mud, but it would be difficult or even impossible to open the full length of bill when the worm is 3 inches down in compacted soil. Rather, the woodcock’s bill has a flexible tip that allows it to grab the worm while most of the length and the base of the bill remain closed.
Woodcocks have something else going for them that makes them near and dear to my heart—they’re adorably cute. They have huge eyes befitting a nocturnal bird—we humans are drawn to large eyes. And woodcocks are beautifully arrayed in exquisite feathers that may blend perfectly with the ground but are each a masterpiece of design.
When woodcocks fly, their wings make a delicate chittering sound thanks to stiffened flight feathers. One might think that a slow-flying bird whose every wingbeat alerts predators and human hunters to its presence would be easy to kill, but their erratic flight makes hitting them extremely tricky. Woodcock are disappearing over the eastern United States, and although loss of habitat due to several modern forestry practices as well as development is the primary cause, continuing to hunt them without careful scrutiny by scientists to establish that an annual harvest isn’t exacerbating the situation seems to be in order. This time of year, woodcocks aren’t hunted, at least not with guns. I head out in search for them early every spring, to witness the males skydancing. In evening as the light gets low enough that woodcock are very difficult to see, suddenly the males start making funny little “beep” sounds. After a male has been doing this a while, suddenly he takes off, his wings chittering as he spirals up toward the sky. When he gets high enough, he starts chirping like a canary and suddenly drops like a falling leaf, back to the ground to start beeping all over again. If I find it thrilling, female woodcocks drawn to it find it even more so. Females walk about, selecting their favorite sky dancers to mate with. Then the females retreat to their nests to lay eggs. Once the females have finished laying their typical clutch of four eggs, they lose interest in males, though they will breed again if they lose their first clutch, so some males keep optimistically skydancing long after the typical breeding season. My Ithaca apartment is on the edge of a wetland, and I’m hoping I’ll be able to hear and watch woodcocks from my balcony this spring. One of my friends heard one a few days before spring even began—in northern Wisconsin and Minnesota, they usually hold off displaying until April. When snows melt and frogs start calling, that’s when to head out in the evening to a moist open area on the edge of the woods. Listen and enjoy.