American Woodcocks are perhaps the most memeable birds on the continent. With their cartoonish looks and quirky behaviors, these coy and plump internet favorites are met with fans everywhere they go. In the eastern United States and Canada, they are among the first spring migrants. Each fall, woodcocks make their way to the Southeast, later returning north as early as January.
Woodcocks thrive in the scrubby young woods that arise a few years after fires, logging, and other forest disturbance. But shifting forest management practices and sprawling development have made those habitats harder to find. As a result, both the central and eastern subpopulations of American Woodcock have been slowly declining since the late 1960s.
Fortunately, properly managing forests can help to stem that loss—along with the decline of other birds that need the same habitat, such as Ruffed Grouse and Golden-winged Warbler—and ensure that woodcocks continue to be regular seasonal visitors long into the future. Here are some of the traits that make these birds so fascinating.
1.) American Woodcocks go by many nicknames that speak to their haunts and habits, some dating back to at least the mid-19th century. Among our favorites: timberdoodle, mudbat, bogsucker, night partridge, and Labrador twister.
2.) The American Woodcock is the only member of its family native to North America, with the seven other woodcock species found in Europe and Asia. Their closest relatives are a group of shorebirds known as snipes. Together, they fall within the sandpiper family, birds that, as their name suggests, are often found on sandy beaches or elsewhere at the water’s edge. Many long-billed sandpipers use those bills to probe wet sand and mud for small invertebrates, crustaceans, and even bacterial biofilms. Woodcocks feed in a similar way, but have swapped coastlines for woodlands, where they poke about the forest floor for earthworms, insects, and the occasional wild plant seed.
3.) The bird’s long bill, which can reach up to three inches, has a sensitive and flexible tip perfect for rooting through soil. The lower third of its beak is packed with nerve endings, helping the woodcock feel for its prey. In an extraordinary feat of avian dexterity, woodcocks can open the upper tip of the bill while it's underground. After the bird snares its prey, rough surfaces on the underside of its bill and tongue keep its snack from wriggling away. Bonus Fact: Females have longer bills than males.
4.) What does the woodcock say? Peent! Courting males produce these short, buzzy calls as part of their mating display. Other calls in the male’s repertoire include a soft, bubbling tuko that precedes the classic peent, along with cackling and chirping during mating displays. Woodcock hens also chirp to keep tabs on their nestlings.
5.) Female American Woodcocks are convincing actresses. If a predator poses a threat to her chicks, a mother woodcock will fake a broken wing to look vulnerable and lure the unwanted visitor away. This behavior, known as a “distraction display,” has been observed in other species, including Snowy Owl and Killdeer.
6.) Male woodcocks are known for their theatrics as well. At dusk or dawn in early spring, the male will stake out a clearing in the forest to perform his famous “sky dance.” To woo a mate, he’ll spend some time peenting before launching himself up to 300 feet in the air. As he rises, his wings make a characteristic twittering sound. He then descends in a spiraling whirl, only to repeat the ritual again.
7.) Few birds can bust a move like the American Woodcock, and it’s not just the sky dance. Videos abound on YouTube of both adults and young birds walking with a rocking motion. Researchers aren’t sure why woodcocks bob this way, but some believe that it may help them hunt by disturbing earthworms.
8.) Woodcocks have noticeably large eyes that are positioned unusually far back on the head. This arrangement gives them a nearly 360-degree field of vision—a useful adaptation to detect predators when busy nosing for a meal in the dirt. It also means they aren’t very good at seeing directly in front of them. Unfortunately, this blind spot makes woodcocks common victims of building collisions.
9.) While American Woodcocks can fly upwards of 30 miles per hour in short bursts, the males are also capable of some of the slowest flights on record: During their aerial displays, courting males flap along at a mere 5 miles per hour. Along with low speeds, woodcocks often fly at low elevations, typically migrating below an altitude of 100 feet.
10.) Woodcock hens make shallow nests on the ground among leaf litter, where they incubate anywhere from one to five eggs for about 20 days. The chicks are able to leave the nest on foot mere hours after hatching. The mother will feed the young for about a week as they learn to probe the earth for food. By about two weeks, they can fly short distances. They’ll spend the next month foraging with mom, after which they are able to head out on their own.