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American Woodcock Known for Odd Appearance, Courtship Displays

Posted Mar. 1, 2005

Timberdoodle, bog snipe, brush snipe, Labrador twister - these are just a few of the aliases of the American woodcock. Perhaps the least-known "game bird" in Oklahoma and Texas, the woodcock is a member of the wading bird family, Scolopacidae, which includes common snipe, plovers and killdeer. The woodcock is a rather odd-looking bird with its brown, black and buff mottled plumage, large eyes set far back on its head and long bill. Sexes are similar in appearance, with females being a little larger and having a slightly longer bill.

Possible explanations for the obscurity of the American woodcock involve its biology and habitat preferences. Woodcock are migratory, and the Noble Research Institute's service area lies close to the western edge of their reported range. We generally do not see large concentrations over vast areas, but they are not as uncommon as you might think. Most birds encountered here are winter migrants. They either are wintering here, passing through to more southern wintering grounds in the fall or making their way back to more northerly nesting grounds in the spring. However, some nesting does occur in our service area.

Woodcock are often solitary, not forming flocks or coveys like quail. They are active during daylight and, periodically, nighttime hours. During the daytime, they are usually found in moist, young forests with adequate understory. Here, they use their long, flexible-tipped bill to probe for the earthworms that make up the bulk of their diet. They also consume various insect larvae, ants, crickets, beetles, etc. During the nighttime, they use nearby fields and openings to roost, feed and mate.

While there are a few people in our service area who actively hunt woodcock, most encounters are incidental. Hunters sometimes encounter woodcock while pursuing quail or deer in late fall or winter, while others happen upon them while hiking in the woods. Perhaps the best opportunity to get a glimpse of the timberdoodle is in late February and March.

During this time of year, around dawn or dusk, and sometimes throughout the night, males will frequent the fields and openings near moist woodland habitat to perform courtship displays. During the display, the male begins making a "peent" sound on the ground for about a minute. This is followed by him spiraling 80 to several hundred feet above ground while creating a twittering sound with his wings. He then descends, making a chirping sound, and lands at the point of takeoff. The sequence is then repeated, and the entire display may last up to 45 minutes.

Most people have access to woodcock habitat, be it private or public. If you are unfamiliar with this bird or have never witnessed its courtship display, it is worth the effort to get acquainted.

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