In Woodlands and Clearings Woodcocks Are on Display

Mar 15, 2017

Recently, one of our more flamboyant seasonal residents has been performing at a variety of obscure local venues, venues that you might describe as off-off-off Broadway. Performances generally take the form of a one man show, and they only work nights, so don’t even think about catching a matinee.

I am of course referring to the American woodcock. Since at least late February, these hardiest of our local shorebirds have been performing their aerial display flights in fields and woodland clearings all across the Cape. Each show, which may be performed dozens of times per night, starts with a ground-based vocal display, commonly known as “peenting”, followed by a combined audio/visual aerial display consisting of a spiraling, twittering climbing phase and a chirping, falling-leaf-style descent.

The performers are all males, and they are of course seeking the attention of lady woodcocks, who are quietly watching from the wings, if you will. Once she has selected her guy and the mating is done, she is on her own, for the male woodcock is 100% devoted to the stage. He will continue displaying every night while the female does all of the incubating and chick rearing. Hummingbirds also follow this breeding strategy, where the male does nothing but display and has no role in the actual nesting and chick rearing. 

Like other species taken by rural hunters, the woodcock has accumulated many colorful local names. The most familiar one is “timberdoodle”, but other, more evocative monikers apparently include bog sucker, night partridge, and, my personal favorite, the Labrador twister.

Brilliantly camouflaged in their forest floor environment, woodcocks are basically living clumps of leaf litter, making them nearly impossible to find in dense cover. But when caught crossing roads or other open areas, woodcocks have a charmingly ineffective way of trying to remain unnoticed, in which they rock their body back and forth like Elvis thrusting his way across a stage – think 70’s Elvis: the woodcock is not a slim bird. As a result, they have their own internet meme, and you can find numerous videos of woodcocks rocking and rolling their way across a road set to various kinds of music.

Some anecdotal evidence indicates the rocking dance may also serve to bring earthworms, which are overwhelmingly their favorite food, up to the surface where they can nab them with their highly sensitive and weirdly flexible bill tip.

As their young forest and shrubland habitat succeeds to mature forest or is converted into subdivisions, woodcocks have been on the decline, and are a species of management concern for various state and non-government agencies. But here on the Cape where young woodlands and wet thickets abound, they are still easy to find.

Woodcock walks are a staple offering of nature centers and bird clubs everywhere in the eastern US, so you can probably find one near you. Search for your own locally performing woodcocks at the edge of some wet thicket and settle in for the show. Tickets are free, but don’t wait – performances only run through May.

Here's a video taken by Mark Faherty of a woodcock:

This episode of the Weekly Bird Report originally aired on March 30, 2016.