Birds – European Woodcock

The Woodcock and Snipe with their allies comprise the final subfamily here recognized (Scolopacince), and may be known by the very long bill which is swollen and somewhat thickened at the tip, which is soft and very sensitive, an adaptation for securing their food by probing in the mud. As a typical example of the group we may select the European Woodcock (Scio-pax rusticula), in which the tibia is completely feathered and the straight bill is longer than the tarsus and middle toe combined. It has a very robust body with a rather short, rounded tail, and a long, pointed wing in which the outer-most primary is longest and broad like the rest, a character which serves to separate it at once from the American Woodcock. In coloration it is rusty brown above, everywhere barred and vermiculated with black, and wood-brown barred with darker brown below; the sexes are alike in plumage. The length is about fourteen inches. The Woodcock has large dark eyes and is mainly nocturnal in its habits, remaining in concealment in thick brush and brake during the day-time, even, it is said, partially covering itself under dry leaves, its tawny, vermiculated plumage serving admirably for concealing it. When disturbed during the day it flies in an Owl-like manner and seems hardly to know which way to go, but on the approach of dusk it becomes active, flying irregularly but rapidly this way and that through the glades, seeking its feeding places. Its food consists of worms, larvae, etc., which occur in moist, swampy, or boggy ground, and which it dexterously extracts with its long, sensitively tipped bill. It is largely a migrant species, spending the winter in the Indian peninsula, China, and neighboring regions, and in summer spreading over much of Europe, northern Asia, and the Himalayas. It breeds mainly to the northward, though a limited number remain for the purpose in the British Islands. During the love-making season the male, abandoning his usual shy habits, may be seen at morning and evening flying slowly about with the plumage puffed out, and emitting the while two peculiar notes. The nest is a slight hollow scratched in the ground in some secluded situation among ferns and bushes, and the eggs are four in number, of a pale yellowish white, spotted and blotched at the larger end with reddish brown. It was long ago observed that when the young birds were threatened with danger they were removed one at a time by the mother to a place of safety. It was first asserted that they were carried in the bill or in the claws, but neither seemed fitted for this office, and it appears that they are carried between the thighs, the bill being employed to hold them in place. The Woodcock is one of the most highly prized of European game birds and is much sought after by sports-men and epicures, with the result that the numbers have become sadly depleted. A much smaller, darker species (S. saturata) occurs in Java and New Guinea.