Wild Profile: Meet the American woodcock

An American woodcock camouflaged against leaf litter By Lindaimke/Shutterstock

Have you heard of the woodcock? What about the timberdoodle? It’s the same bird. The same, strange-looking bird. Spring is a key time for the plump, stubby-necked avian. With its bizarre preportions—look at that long beak—it’s hard to imagine that the woodcock would be a strong flier. But it is. And beginning in March, males take to the skies to woo their future lady loves with astonishing courtship flights.

What does the woodcock sound like?

About 20 minutes after sundown in early spring, male woodcocks start to call to the ladies: peent, peent, peent. It’s nasal and buzzy, and audible from more than 200 metres away. A male will repeat the sound every few seconds for a couple of minutes, then launch into the air, spiralling through the sky 100 metres up. Then he abruptly hurtles back to earth, flying in a zigzag pattern. He repeats this aerial dance about a dozen times, and does the same thing again at dawn, for two months. That’s dedication.

What do woodcocks eat?

The woodcock isn’t nearly as fancy-footed on the ground, but it does move in an unusual way. While foraging—for beetle grubs, maggots, and millipedes—the robin-sized bird camouflages with its surroundings thanks to its buff, brown, and black feathers. It bobs back and forth, shifting its weight from foot to foot as it uses its upper bill to probe the leaf litter. The upper bill has a flexible, serrated tip that’s full of blood vessels. The woodcock uses it to detect the vibrations of critters in the soil—mostly earthworms, a staple food. Experts think the bird’s back-and-forth movement is intentional, to encourage worms to burrow deeper, and therefore, make noise that the woodcock can “hear”. Sneaky trick!

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