American woodcocks are short, plump birds with very long bills (5.9 to 7.8 cm). Their feathers are mottled brown, rich buff and gray. These colors camouflage them in their woodland habitat. Woodcocks have large heads with three dark bands across the back. They have large brown eyes and rounded wings.
Male and female American woodcocks look very similar, but females are bigger than males. Female American woodcocks range from 27 to 31 cm long and can weigh 151 to 279 g. Their wingspans range from 44.6 to 50.8 cm. Males range from 25 to 28 cm long and weigh 116 to 219 g. Their wingspans range from 40.4 to 45.5 cm (Keppie and Whiting, 1994; Terres, 1980).
American woodcocks occurs only in North America. They are distributed widely in the eastern United States and southeast Canada. Some individuals may winter in the Caribbean (Keppie and Whiting 1994).
American woodcocks live in forests that have open areas. A mixture of young forests and farm fields is ideal for woodcocks. Woodcocks move around between habitats for different activities and in different seasons. They sing in areas with woody vegetation, and they forage along forest edges. They nest many different habitats, including open fields, forests and old fields. In winter, they live in forests.
American woodcocks are polygynous. This means that each male may mate with many females. Males attract a mate by performing a courtship flight, called a “sky dance,” at dusk and dawn. They spiral up high, flittering their wings and chirping, and then circle quickly back to the ground, where they make a peenting call. The areas where males perform this display are called 'singing sites' or 'breeding fields', and males usually return to the same fields each year. Females chose which male to breed with after seeing the males’ “sky dances.” The male and female do not form a pair-bond, and the males do not help care for the eggs or chicks.
The female woodcock builds a simple nest on the ground. Sometimes she builds no nest at all and lays the eggs on leaf litter on the ground instead. She lays 1 to 5 (usually 4) grayish-orange eggs. She incubates them for 20 to 22 (usually 21) days. All of the eggs in a nest hatch within 4 to 5 hours, and the female broods the chicks until they are dry. The chicks and the mother all leave the nest together a few hours after the chicks hatch. The female broods and protects the chicks until they are 15 to 20 days old. She feeds them for the first week, but they are able to search for food when they are 3 to 4 days old. The chicks are nearly fully grown 28 days after hatching. They become independent from their mother when they are 31 to 38 days old. They are ready to mate when they are 10 to 12 months old. (Keppie and Whiting, 1994; Terres, 1980)
Male woodcocks do not provide any parental care. Female woodcocks build the nest and incubate the eggs for approximately 21 days. They brood and protect the precocial chicks until they reach independence, and feed the chicks for the first week after hatching.
The maximum known lifespan of American woodcocks is 8 years.
American woodcocks are solitary birds. They are most active from at dusk and dawn, and sometimes on moonlit nights or cloudy days. American woodcocks also migrate at night. They may migrate alone, or in small flocks. During migration, you may see flocks in city parks, yards, orchards, or on lawns.
Studies of American woodcocks have estimated home range sizes between 150,000 and 740,000 square meters.
American woodcocks use songs and physical displays to communicate. They make at least four different calls. These calls are called the Peent, Tuko, Chirping and Cackle. Males perform a beautiful display called a “song flight” or “sky dance”. They fly silently into the air in wide circles until they reach about 100 m high. Their wings make a twittering sound as they rise. They hover in the air, and then begin singing and chirping. They keep singing and chirping as they fall down to the ground like a leaf. This display is probably done to attract female mates.
American woodcocks eat during the day in spring and summer. In winter, they eat at night. They usually eat alone, but they don’t defend a territory. Woodcocks search for food by looking, or by feeling for the food or listening for it. They might stomp on the ground to disturb earthworms that are underground. If the earthworms move, woodcocks can find them by listening for them, or by feeling them with their bills.
Woodcocks probably do not drink water. They get enough water in the foods that they eat.
Woodcocks are very vulnerable to predators. Adults, chicks and eggs are all eaten by many different birds and mammals, including house cats. Eggs are also eaten by snakes.
Woodcocks are cryptically colored. Their mottled brown, buff and gray feathers help them to blend in with the ground. This makes them harder for predators to see. If a predator comes near, female woodcocks may pretend to be injured to distract the predator from the eggs or chicks.
American woodcocks affect the earthworms and insect species that they eat. They may also aerate the soil while probing for insects and earthworms. They also provide habitat for at least 49 different types of body parasites.
There are no known adverse affects of American woodcocks on humans.
American woodcocks are a popular gamebird. An average of 2 million American woodcocks are shot each year by hunters.
Populations of American woodcocks seem to be getting smaller. Woodcocks die when they crash into cars, utility wires, lighthouses, TV towers, or other tall structures during migration. They are also sometimes killed by hunters, or in winter when there are long periods of cold or freezing weather and food is unavailable. Scientists are worried that American woodcocks are being poisoned by pesticides that are used near their habitat.
American woodcocks are protected under the U.S. Migratory Bird Act.
American woodcocks have several other interesting common names, including timberdoodle, Labrador twister, night partridge and bog sucker (Keppie and Whiting, Jr. 1994).
Kari Kirschbaum (author, editor), Animal Diversity Web.
Alicia Ivory (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.
Keppie, D.M. and R.M. Whiting, Jr. 1994. American Woodcock (Scolopax minor). In The Birds of North America, No. 100 (A. Poole and F. Gill, Eds.). Philadelphia: The Academy of Natural Sciences; Washington, D.C.: The American Ornithologists' Union.
Terres, J. The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds. Alfred A Knopf, New York, 1980.
Patuxent Science Information Systems, "Effect of hunting on survival and habitat use by American Woodcock (Scolopax minor) on breeding and migration areas" (On-line). Accessed (Date Unknown) at http://www.pwrc.nbs.gov/mcaul2s.htm.
U.S. Forest Service, "Fire Effects Information Service" (On-line). Accessed 2002 at http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/wildlife/bird/scmi/index.html.