Birds – Woodcock

(Philohela minor)


Length—10 to 11 inches; Female 11 to 12 inches.

Male and Female—Upper parts varied with gray, brown, black, and buff; an indistinct black line on front of head, another running from bill to eye; back of head black with three buff bars. Under parts reddish buff brown. Eyes large and placed in upper corner of triangular head. Bill long, straight, stout. Short, thick neck and compact, rounded body; wings and legs short.

Range—Eastern North America, from the British Provinces to the Gulf, nesting nearly throughout its range; winters south of Virginia and southern Illinois.

Season—Resident all but the coldest months; a few winter.

The borings of the woodcock in bogs, wet woodlands, and fields—little groups of clean cut holes made by the bird’s bill in the soft earth—give the surest clue to the presence of this luscious game bird, that has been tracked by sportsmen and pot hunters alike, from Labrador to the Gulf, by means of these tell-tale marks until the day cannot be far distant when there will be no woodcock left to shoot. Since earthworms are the bird’s staple diet, these must be probed for and felt after through the moist earth. Down goes the woodcock’s bill, sunk to the nostril; the upper half, being flexible at the tip, draws the worm forth as one might raise a string through the neck of a jar with one’s finger. Curiously, the tip of the upper mandible works quite independently of the lower one—a fact only recently discovered by Mr. Gurdon Trumbull. Owing to the position of the eyes, at the back of the head, food must be felt rather than seen; but, so sensitive is the tip of the bill, and so far out of sight are the worms, in any case the eyes serve a better purpose in being placed where they widen the bird’s vision and so detect an enemy afar. It is claimed by some that, like the owls, woodcock see best at night. Worms come to the surface after dark, which explains this and many other birds’ nocturnal habits.

In the early spring any one who takes an interest in the woodcock, aside from its flavor, will be repaid for one’s tramp through the Swale, at evening, to see the bird go through a series of aerial antics and attestations of affection to his innamorata. Standing with his bill pointing downward and his body inclined forward, he calls out pink, pink, as much as to say: “Now look, the performance is about to begin”; then suddenly he springs from the ground, flies around and around in circles, his short stiff wings whistling as he goes, higher, higher, faster, faster, and louder and louder, as he sweeps by overhead in erratic circles, each overlapping the other, until the end of the spiral described must be fully three hundred feet from the ground. Now, uttering a sharp whistle, down he comes, pitching, darting, and finally alighting very near the spot from which he set out. Pink, pink, he again calls, to make sure his efforts are not lost upon the object of his affection, and before he can fairly have recovered his breath, off he goes on another series of gyrations accompanied by wing music. Or, he may dance jigs when in the actual presence of the loved one. Cranes, plovers, owls, and flickers, among others, go through clownish performances to win their mates, in some instances the females joining in; but the woodhen, as the proper-nice people say, remains coy and apparently coldly indifferent to the madness of her lover. He will sometimes stand motionless, as if meditating on some new method of winning her, his head drawn in, his bill pressing against his breast. Then, with his short tail raised and outstretched like a grouse’s, and with dropped wings trailing beside him, he will strut about with a high step—a comical picture of dignity and importance.

Little time need be taken from the honeymoon to make a nest. This consists of a few dry leaves on the ground in the woods, usually near a stump, where the four buffy eggs, spotted over with reddish brown, are laid, often before the snow has melted, in April. A dry place being chosen for the nesting site, it sometimes becomes necessary to transport the funny little fluffy, long-billed chicks to muddy hunting grounds, and the mother has been detected in the act of flying with one of her brood held between her thighs. But the chicks are by no means helpless, even from the instant they leave the shell. It is a pretty sight to see a little family poking about at twilight for larvae, worms, and small insects, among the decayed leaves, the fallen logs, and the ferns and skunk cabbages. Peep, peep, they call, quite like barnyard chicks.

By the first of August the woodcocks, deserting the low, wet lands, scatter themselves over the country in corn fields, grassy meadows, birch covered hillsides, “alder runs,” pine forests, and thick, cool, moist undergrowth, near woods; and now they moult. No whistling of wings can be heard as the birds heavily labor along near the ground, often unable to raise their denuded bodies higher. In September, when the sportsmen make sad havoc in the flocks, already gathering for migration, they are found in the dense thickets of wooded uplands, where a stream flows to keep the ground soft; and in October, when the birds are in prime condition, the spot that contained scores at evening may hold none by morning. The russet colored birds mingle with the russet colored leaves, and, as they lie close, it takes a good dog to find them. The woodcocks migrate silently by night, and an early frost, that stiffens the ground, drives them off suddenly to softer territory southward. Hence the delightful element of uncertainty enters into the hunting of this bird, that is here to-day and gone to-morrow. When flushed, its flight appears to be feeble, as, after a few whistles of its short, stiff wings, and trailing its legs behind it, it quickly drops into cover again, running a little distance on alighting, but the distances covered in migrations prove it to be no unskilled flier.