Bird Tails

The Oddest Bird of All?

Now that's an odd bird.

By Vic Prislipsky

There is an uncommon migratory visitor to the Village, a bird you probably have never seen and maybe not even heard of.   It is also one of the oddest of all birds.  It's the American Woodcock.

The American Woodcock belongs to the Shorebird family. As you would expect, most Shorebirds are found near the shores of oceans and lakes.  Many shorebirds have long legs and long thin bills that are perfect for wading and probing the sand beaches or mucky margins in search of insect larvae or other invertebrates. 

 American Woodcock -  Photo by Vic Prislipsky

American Woodcock - Photo by Vic Prislipsky

Woodcock have the long bill but not the long legs.  Even odder is that they rarely ever go near a shore.  Woodcock prefer thick woodlands with patches of open, moist soil where they probe for earthworms and grubs.  This has earned them the nickname of “Bogsucker”.  An Alder thicket near a creek or small river suits them just fine.  Our aversion to walking in Alder thickets combined with the Woodcock’s reclusive nature and nocturnal habits causes them to be one the least seen of all birds.  Only upland bird hunters with good dogs are among the few who see Woodcock on a regular basis.

Woodcock have other physical oddities.  Although they measure the same size as a Blue Jay they look nothing like a typical bird.  They have no neck to speak of.  A stubby tail, long bill, unusually short legs and a plump, chicken-like physique add up to one unusual looking bird.  Their movement on the ground might be described as a waddle.  Despite being migratory (they nest in the northern states and Canada and then move to the far south for the winter) Woodcock reportedly are the slowest flying bird.  Perhaps the greatest oddity, they are the only bird whose brain is upside down!

It’s no surprise that Woodcock have interesting breeding behavior.  Towards dark, in the early spring, the male moves to a to a grassy clearing near his thick habitat.   At the light level where a person can just make out the first star, he begins a series of buzzy calls called  “peenting”.  After a minute or two of this, he launches into a sky-high flight followed by a spiral back to the clearing with his wing feathers making a sweet, twittering sound.  He’ll repeat this until a mate is attracted or he moves off to feed.  This mating flight may be repeated again at dawn.

Spotting a Woodcock requires great luck because of their near-perfect camouflage.  In the Village March and early November are the best times to find one.  Trails at Cooper Preserve, Cedar Creek, and Middle Fork Barren are places where they have been seen.  Although you’re not likely to see one on the ground, a Woodcock will flush if you pass close enough to it.  Even without a good look, their relatively long wing-span and whistling wings, much like that of a Mourning Dove’s, will signal that you have just flushed an American Woodcock.

As always our recently redesigned website, HSVBIRDS.ORG,  has a lot of information about everything you’d like to know about birds and some of Nature’s other wonders.  HSV Audubon meets the 2nd Friday of each month (except July and August) at 10:00 at the Coronado Center.  Guests are always welcome.

Photo by Vic Prislipsky