The American woodcock (Scolopax minor), also known as the timberdoodle, is a funny looking bird whose mating display represents one of the early signs of spring for many parts of eastern North America. It can be found in young, wet woodlands, especially where there are nearby open areas. They are most often found in rural areas; however, they can sometimes be found in city parks or suburbs if the right habitat is available.
Woodcock are extremely well camouflaged and will freeze when potential danger approaches. It is possible to almost step on one without seeing it until it explodes off the ground and flies away in rapid zig-zags through the trees.
Woodcocks have huge eyes that are set far back on their head. They spend much of their time probing in the soft, moist ground looking for earthworms and other invertebrates. Because of the size and location of its eyes, the woodcock is able to see predators overhead even when its bill is in the ground. The bill of a woodcock is pretty unique in its own right. The tip of the upper bill is flexible and can be opened even when the bill is stuck several inches into the dirt – a handy trick if your favorite food is earthworms.
In the late winter and early spring, woodcock begin their mating displays. The male will find an open area near an area of young woods. He will stand in the opening and give a call that sounds like a nasally “peent.” He’ll repeat the call several times before launching into the air and flying up in long loose circles. As he flies, the wind rushes through the feathers in his wings and across a set of specialized feathers that produces a loud, twittering whistle. He’ll then descend and start the process over again. The male’s mating display is known as his sky dance.
Females will be attracted to the area where the male is displaying. If a female arrives during a male’s sky dance, he will land next to her and attempt to mate. Female woodcock typically lay four eggs in a shallow nest built on the ground. She is solely responsible for all of the nest building, incubation, and care of the young. Young woodcock leave the nest with their mother only a few hours after they hatch and can feed themselves after about a week.
Woodcock are most active at dawn and dusk so this is the best time to watch for their sky dances. Often you will hear the displaying male before you see him. Once you hear the whistling of his wings start looking up to see if you can find him silhouetted against the sky. Several people have told me they think the silhouetted woodcock looks like a giant bumblebee with the stinger on the wrong end. I laugh, but I can’t disagree with that description. If you have the right habitat nearby, I encourage you to go out on a warm evening or early one warm morning and try to find a displaying woodcock. You might end up with a new favorite sign of spring as you watch your first sky dance.
This article was part of Shannon’s original Kentucky Pollinators and Backyard Wildlife blog which evolved into the blog for Backyard Ecology. All of Shannon’s Kentucky Pollinators and Backyard Wildlife blogs can be found at https://shannontrimboli.com/posts/blog/.
Backyard Ecology: Creating Space for Pollinators and Wildlife
Nature isn’t just “out there.” It’s all around us, including right outside our doors. Hi, my name is Shannon Trimboli, and I am the host of Backyard Ecology. I live in southcentral Kentucky and am a wildlife biologist, educator, author, beekeeper, and owner of a nursery specializing in plants for pollinators and wildlife conservation. I started Backyard Ecology as a way to share my love of exploring nature and learning about different plants and animals. I invite you to join me as we ignite our curiosity and natural wonder, explore our yards and communities, and improve our local pollinator and wildlife habitat. Learn more or subscribe to my email list at www.backyardecology.net.