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Long known primarily as a bird for sports hunters, the American woodcock is deservedly appreciated by nature lovers everywhere for its beauty and interesting habits.
The migratory woodcock has a very long, straight bill, a large head and what appear to be bulging eyes. It is a strangely configured bird, with a short neck and chunky body. The colouring is designed for camouflage – a dark back and buffy breast. The time to see a woodcock is at dusk in early spring, when the male performs a unique mating display. This involves rising in the air to a height of 60-90 m (200-300′) while making a loud twittering sound with his wings. Then he quickly drops to the ground in a zig-zag fashion and resumes his buzzy “PEENT” call. Several males may display at the same time. The female is attracted to the area and mates with a male. Males continue to display and may mate with other females. The female then raises her brood on her own.
Woodcock are found in damp, brushy thickets of alder, willow or maple near stream banks, bogs or swamps. They will seek clearings or nearby fields to perform their displays, but need woodland for nocturnal roosting.
Earthworms can make up to 50% of a woodcock’s diet. One reason woodcocks are attracted to alder areas is that these shrubs add large amounts of nitrogen and organic matter to the soil and create excellent conditions for earthworms. Stream-banks are especially important foraging areas, perfect for a woodcock to dig into damp soil with its long beak. Woodcocks also root out the larvae of beetles, flies and other insects, and occasionally eat leaves, seeds and fruit.
There has been a continent-wide decline in past years due to a loss in early successional forest habitat. This is a reminder that there is great value to wildlife from our native shrubs as well as from healthy streams.