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American Woodcock

Woodcock photo by Bill Hubick.

A plump physique and a waddle for a walk. Camouflaged feathers resembling dead leaves that cryptically blends in with the forest floor. A beak appearing too long for the body yet perfectly designed to sift through soils and extract earthworms. This funny yet sweet shorebird sports a variety of equally charming nicknames: timberdoodle, bogsucker, brush snipe, becasse, night partridge, and hokumpoke. Carefully hidden from most eyes in brushy young forests and wet thickets, the American Woodcock (Scolopax minor) is a popular hunting species for game bird enthusiasts. Along with its distinctive appearance, the Woodcock is unique for consuming its weight in earthworms each day and being a shorebird that has evolved to live primarily in the woods. Then there is their unique mating ritual on early spring evenings before dawn. After glancing a potential mate, the male Woodcock gives off repeated high-pitched “peent” calls while strutting on the ground before blasting off into the sky in wide spirals. Once it reaches about 300 feet in the air, the male slowly circles a large open area along forest edges a few times, wings whistling the entire time, before tumbling through the air to land silently nearby the female with the hope of having won over her affection. 

One of the few shorebirds that is also a popular game bird, the American Woodcock spends its entire life cycle in eastern North America from the Atlantic Coast to the edge of the Great Plains. During the nesting season they migrate to southern Canada and the northern U.S. where males seek out clearings in the forests to display their elaborate courtship, forage in wetland and marsh environments, and occupy young to mid-age forests to nest. They are one of the earliest birds to return to the north, with some arriving as early as February. When shortened days and cold weather return, Woodcock travel by night alone or in small flocks to the southern U.S. to occupy a wide variety of forests such as upland mixed pine and longleaf pine. In the Appalachian Mountains, the Woodcock’s preferred habitat is a mosaic of dense hardwood forests and wetlands that have consistent patches of large and small openings and fertile soils with an abundance of earthworms. Bird enthusiasts will almost always spot them on the edges rather than in the interiors of the woods.

Decline and Status
Though a well-known bird, the Woodcock shares a similar trend in population declines with other less recognizable feathered friends. Over the last 50 years Woodcock populations have been declining by about one percent per year. Similar to other bird species, this decline is largely due to loss of habitat or changes in forest structure. In the Woodcock’s case, diminishing acreage of young forests, shrublands, and wetlands has left fewer clearings and places to forage and nest. Human development and the suppression of natural disturbances like fire that creates clearings are the root causes of these changes on the landscape. Because of consistent declines in numbers, the Woodcock has been named a species of high concern in the U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plan and is one of the highest priority species for the Appalachian Mountains Joint Venture (AMJV).

Our Work
Lots of energy and work by a broad array of AMJV partners, researchers, and land managers has gone into protecting the American Woodcock. In 2008, the Appalachian Mountains Woodcock Initiative -a collaboration of 10 wildlife conservation entities dedicated to restoration of Woodcock and other early successional species –published Best Management Practice (BMP) Guidelines for this species in the Central Appalachians. The guidelines provide information to foresters, resource managers, and the conservation community on habitat needs and goals for the bird, conservation planning objectives, and other species that would benefit from similar habitat management. The guidelines suggest that habitat managers should identify, manage, and expand the habitat mosaics American Woodcock rely upon (dense hardwood forests and wetlands that have consistent patches of large and small openings and fertile soils) and that working farms and forestlands provide the best opportunity for putting such habitat on the ground. Where habitat has been managed so far, some populations have increased significantly. In addition, young forest habitat created using Golden-winged Warbler Best Management Practice Guidelines developed by AMJV partners can provide excellent Woodcock habitat as well. Both species share very similar habitat requirements, with the exception that Woodcock also require nearby wetlands. When both species are present in an area, the Golden-winged Warbler BMP has been shown to be very effective for managing habitat of both species.