Whenever I need proof that there is a divine sense of humor in the universe, I consider the American woodcock. From all appearances, it is a bird that has been assembled from the spare parts of other birds. It’s got the body of a pigeon, the legs of a chicken, the bill of a snipe, and the eyes of a … of a … Actually, nothing else has eyes like that. The woodcock is the color of leaf litter. It walks as if it is doing the Hokey Pokey. It’s a shorebird that wouldn’t be caught dead at the shore. It’s nicknamed the timberdoodle. Other locally popular names include Labrador twister, hokumpoke, fiddle squeak, bogsucker and mudsnipe.
The American woodcock is a game bird, and you have to admire the courage of the first person to eat one. Who gazes upon such a bird and thinks, “Doesn’t that look delicious?” The bird is so homely, it’s no wonder the males have to work hard to please the ladies. Woodcocks have one of the most elaborate courtship displays in North America, and their displays are on display right now.
Woodcocks are well camouflaged. I’ve tried to sneak up on birds that I have just watched cross the road, but I can never find them. Fortunately, in the spring they take pity on us. Just as the sun dips below the horizon, courtship begins.
It starts with a loud, nasal “peent.” And then another. Then several more in slow succession. After a minute, the bird springs skyward, rising hundreds of feet into the air, making a wide circle around his courtship spot. All the while, the wind whistles eerily through his feathers, allowing you to follow the flight of the bird even when it’s too dark to see it. After several circles, he zigzags earthward, chirping musically, until he reaches the ground in the exact spot from which he ascended.
He may keep it up all night. He may keep it up all spring. He arrives in mid-March, and continues displaying even after all females have laid their eggs, hoping that some unlucky female has a nest failure and is willing to mate again. The male takes no role in raising the young. All his energy goes into his sky dance, luring as many females to his courtship spot as possible.
How can a bird that gets so much aerobic exercise remain so plump? Up to 90% of a woodcock’s diet consists of fat, juicy earthworms. Their long bills are specially adapted to probe for worms. The tip is sensitive and flexible, allowing them to sense when they have touched a worm and to snatch it without opening the whole bill. A woodcock can consume more than its own weight in one day.
Even the woodcock’s funny walk is thought to help them find worms. They take one step back for every two steps forward, trodding heavily, while bobbing up and down. Biologists speculate that the motion causes earthworms to flinch, which the bird detects.
A woodcock bill is about the length of your finger. As you can imagine, a bird with nearly three inches of bill buried in the soil is vulnerable to attack from above. Thus, the eyes of a woodcock are placed far back on its head, allowing it to see danger in all directions. Its ears are below its eyes. This arrangement is so unusual that the bird’s cerebellum is positioned lower in the skull than all other birds, making room for its uniquely placed sensory organs.
Sadly, woodcock populations are declining nationwide at about 1 percent per year. Happily, we’re doing something about it. Maine has a healthy population. We have a lot of the forest edge habitat necessary for woodcock. Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge near Calais was established in 1937 to increase habitat for woodcock and waterfowl.
One problem is that woodcock migrate at night, only about 50 feet up. They crash into things. Alexander Fish is a doctoral candidate in wildlife biology at the University of Maine, and he’s using GPS tracking to study their migratory patterns in hopes of learning more about the decline. He’ll present some of his findings tonight (May 10) at Fields Pond Audubon Center in Holden. It’s the annual meeting of Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. The free program starts at 7 p.m., preceded by a potluck dinner at 6 p.m.
There’s probably a woodcock near you. Just step out after dark to a spot where the forest abuts a field, and listen. Peent.
Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.