American Woodcock

Scolopax minor

(c) Scott Elowitz
  • SCOLOPACIDAE
  • Snipe, Sandpipers, Phalaropes, and allies
  • Charadriiformes
  • Chocha Americana
  • Bécasse d’Amérique; Bécasse des bois
Introduction
 A small, compact shorebird, the American Woodcock inhabits moist woodlands and meadows, where it probes the soft soil with its long, sensitive bill. Habitat loss across its range and recent declines in eastern populations has made the American Woodcock a species of high concern. As a popular game bird, the "Timberdoodle" or "Bog sucker" may suffer from both hunting pressure and habitat loss.
(c) Charles Bush
Appearance Description
The American Woodcock’s plumage is cryptic; the complex pattern of brown, muted yellow, and light grey looks like leaf litter. The unmarked under-parts are a dull orange-yellow. Woodcocks have short legs, long bills, short tails, and stout bodies that appear to have no neck. The woodcocks’ eyes are large and set far back on the head, which allows feeding birds to see in all directions and in low light, even with their heads down.
 
As it flushes from underfoot or takes off on its courtship flight, the American Woodcock appears to most observers as a twittering brownish ball and a blur of wings. Females are usually larger than males, but on average the American Woodcock weighs 7 ounces, grows to 11 inches long, and has an 18-inch wingspan.
Range Map
Courtesy Kenn Kaufman
Range Distribution
American Woodcocks breed from the Atlantic coast west to the edge of the Great Plains and from southern Canada to the Carolinas and Arkansas. They are permanent residents from west Texas through the southeastern United States. Significant populations winter along the Gulf Coast, across the Florida peninsula, and into central Texas.
 
A legend for the range map to the right can be found here.
Habitat
American Woodcocks breed in a mixed habitat of open woodland, moist thickets, and brushy fields. Open areas are needed for displaying. Migratory habitats are similar. In the winter, this upland shorebird inhabits a variety of forest types, as well as unused and harvested fields.
Feeding
The American Woodcock has a long bill with a sensitive and flexible tip, which can detect worms and other creatures in the soil. After probing at various depths, the woodcock pulls its prey from underground. It also picks up items at ground level. American Woodcocks eat large numbers of earthworms, as well as snails, millipedes, flies, spiders, and beetles. Diets vary regionally and are supplemented with seeds.  
Reproduction
The American Woodcock male has a spectacular, complex courtship display that thrills many observers. In late winter or early spring, loose groups of males, called “leks,” gather together on display grounds before the females arrive on the breeding grounds. At dawn and dusk, males display by jumping into the air, flying in a wide spiral up to 300 feet high, and then descending in a lazy zigzag on rustling wings. On the ground, males “peent!,” as they rotate in one spot.
 
American Woodcocks do not form pairs. Males may mate with several females and do not participate in raising the young. The female makes a shallow depression on the ground in dry leaf or grass litter; there she usually lays 4 buff colored eggs, marked with brown. Chicks hatch in about 21 days and can walk shortly thereafter. Very young woodcocks crouch and freeze when frightened. The female cares for the chicks for about a month, at which time the juveniles slowly disperse but remain in the general area until migration.
Migration
Within North America, American Woodcocks migrate at night, alone or in small flocks. Birds depart from their northern breeding range from October through early winter. Spring migration sometimes begins as early as January.  
CBC Graph
Graph Legend
Annual population indices
  • 5,000,000
  • 5,000,000
  • severe population declines and serious threats to breeding
Population Status Trends
Between 1966 and 1991, Breeding Bird Surveys recorded sharp declines in northeastern American Woodcock populations, and recent Christmas Bird Counts indicate a small decline overall. Where habitat has been managed for this species, some populations have increased significantly.  
 
An explanation of the Annual Indices graph displayed to the right can be found here.
Conservation Issues
The U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plan has designated the American Woodcock as a species of high concern. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also recognizes the need to manage woodland habitat to benefit this upland shorebird. As farmlands throughout eastern North America reverted to forest over the past century, American Woodcocks may have initially benefited. But as these forests have matured, suitable breeding sites have shrunk. Some sites in Maine have successfully increased woodcock numbers by cutting forest tracts, and mowing or burning adjacent fields.
 
The effects of woodcock hunting by humans, and predation by dogs and cats, need further study. In many areas, limits have been set on the length, timing, and intensity of the woodcock hunting season. Audubon’s Cats Indoors campaign outlines some solutions to cat predation, an issue which faces many ground birds. Informed hunters and pet owners can have a positive impact on the health of woodcock populations.
What You Can Do
Early on a quiet spring evening, look for this strange shorebird as it displays. The male’s “peent!” call will alert you to its presence on the ground. By watching the sky just above the horizon, you may glimpse the courtship flight and hear the whir of woodcock wings.
 
On farmlands and nature preserves, support management practices that maintain the American Woodcock’s breeding habitat—a mixture of young woodland, thickets, and grassy fields. This mosaic will also attract other native birds and animals.
 
To protect your cats, and to decrease predation on American Woodcocks and other birds, keep your cats indoors. For more information see Audubon’s “Cats Indoors” website.
 
For actions you can take, including Audubon activities, please visit our resources page.
More Information
Visit our resources page for more information about this species.
Natural History References
Kaufman, Kenn. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1996.
 
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.
 
Sibley, David Allen. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
Conservation Status References
Kaufman, Kenn. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1996.
 
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.
 
Sibley, David Allen. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.