The American woodcock is a rarely-seen local visitor which we have noted just 3 times here, in the June-September summer season, over a 22-year span. At 11" (28 cm) it is somewhat smaller than its European relative, Scolopax rusticola, the European woodcock (12-14", 32-36 cm), which is resident in Britain and Ireland, and breeds from the British Isles east across Europe and Asia to northern Japan. Both woodcocks are plump, long-billed shorebirds by lineage, but their usual habitat is a forest floor, from which they can be flushed at close range. They are said to be delicious, their misfortune in hunting season. The American woodcock is a largely nocturnal beast, and prefers alder thickets and other cover to open shores. The long bill is used to probe for earthworms, the preferred meal, and so the birds are often on the ground. The male woodcock is noted for the sight and sounds of a rising and falling display flight in springtime (John Theberge's (1989) evocation is hard to beat). Arthur Cleveland Bent describes both species (Bent, 1927, pp.54-78). His lyrical introduction to the behaviour of the American woodcock is worthy of repetition....
"This mysterious hermit of the alders, this recluse of the boggy thickets, this wood nymph of crepuscular habits is a common bird and well distributed in our Eastern States, widely known, but not intimately known. Its quiet retiring habits do not lead to human intimacy. It may live almost in our midst unnoticed...".
I can't match that! And, as with other birds, water birds in particular, it may be that my varied travels and daily walking habits lead me to miss the times and places of most appearances of what could be a moderately well-distributed bird. The main threat to the woodcock may now be habitat loss: it has been estimated (see Levine, 1998, p.309) that the USA may have lost 54% of all wetlands since European settlement. To some extent, conservation initiatives and changes in farming practice may have partially redressed the balance. I have not seen many American woodcock in the past 20 years, though I recall flushing one near Current Lake, north of Thunder Bay in October 2008, and hearing the whistling sound of its wings. The three sightings in Seymour Township were:
The American woodcock breeds across southern Ontario from Windsor and Lake St. Clair east to the Ottawa Valley, and west from Sudbury along the North Channel of Lake Huron to Sault Ste. Marie. Records of breeding are more scattered to the north and west, but extend west to the Manitoba border and northwards from Lake Superior (Cadman et al., 2007, pp.250-251). Breeding has been confirmed in most of the 10x10 km squares of the Breeding Atlas, from Rice Lake to Presqu'ile and north into Trent Hills.
The woodcock is a common spring migrant and summer resident, and an uncommon fall migrant at Presqu'ile provincial park, roughly 40 km to the south. Extreme early and late dates in the park are 19 March to 04 November (LaForest, 1993, p.162). Similar dates are noted in Peterborough county, to the northwest, 07 March to 11 November (Sadler, 1983, pp.83-84). Monkman (2002) describes the March-April and October activities of the woodcock, including the display flights of both the woodcock and its cousin, the common snipe (ibid., p.69).
The woodcock seems to have a fairly stable distribution in Ontario and more widely in North America, despite pressures due to habitat loss (Anon, 1991) and hunting. I have not heard of major hunts of woodcock in recent time, but Bent (1927, pp.72-75), who - like other naturalists of a bygone year - was not averse to bagging specimens with a gun, recounts hair-raising tales of slaughter in the 19th century. Summer, fall and even winter hunts, in unusual years, across central America might see one or two hunters shoot 100, 200 or more birds in a few hours or a couple of days. This heedless delight in blood sport (and hunting for the market) provides some perspective on how a small but determined minority of Homo "sapiens" managed to decimate or entirely destroy formerly abundant species, of which the passenger pigeon is but the most notorious of many examples. One authority (quoted in Levine, 1998, pp.267-269), writing in 1910, estimated that sport and market hunters and other factors had led to a 98% decline in numbers since the mid-19th century! Hunting and habitat loss aside, a late-winter blizzard is another hazard that may decimate woodcocks in a given year, since they will often migrate north from wintering areas (generally across the south and southeast states) to breeding grounds as early as January or February.
Today, the woodcock breeds in open areas with some cover, such as wet prairies and alder
swamp, pastures and abandoned fields, on the margins of deciduous, coniferous and mixed woodland.
Populations have recovered significantly since the run-in with firearms-induced
extirpation, and this feathered beauty, with its (mating flights excepted) skulking
behaviour remains a welcome treasure of the forest margins.
Seasonal (fall) hunting is still permitted in Ontario and the U.S.A.,
but with bag limits, such that habitat change (including
regrowth of abandoned pasture) may today be a more potent limit on woodcock populations.
The bird makes a primitive nest on the woodland floor. The young are "rather weak and dependent"
(Forbush and May, 1937)
and the mother bird has been observed to clasp a youngster between her thighs and carry it to safety.
Anon (1991) Sky-dancing woodcock needs habitat help. National Geographic 180 no.2, 138, August.
Bent,AC (1927) Life Histories of North American Shore Birds, Part 1. Dover Publications Inc., 1962 reprint of Smithsonian Institution Bull. 142, 420pp. plus 55 plates.
Burrell,K and Burrell,M (2019) Best Places to Bird in Ontario. Greystone Books, 278pp.
Cadman,MD, Sutherland,DA, Beck,GG, Lepage,D and Couturier,AR (editors) (2007) Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario, 2001-2005. Bird Studies Canada, Environment Canada, Ontario Field Ornithologists, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, and Ontario Nature, 706pp.
Forbush,EH and May,JB (1939) American woodcock. In `Natural History of the Birds of Eastern and Central North America', Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, MA, 554pp., 178-180.
Godfrey,WE (1979) The Birds of Canada. National Museums of Canada, Ottawa, 428pp.
LaForest,SM (1993) Birds of Presqu'ile Provincial Park. Friends of Presqu'ile Park, Brighton, Ontario / Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, 436pp.
Leopold,A (1966) A Sand County Almanac, with essays on conservation from Round River. Ballantine Books, Inc., New York, 295pp.
Levine,E (editor) (1998) Bull's Birds of New York State. Comstock Publishing Associates, Cornell University Press, 622pp.
Monkman,D (2002) Nature's Year in the Kawarthas: a Guide to the Unfolding Seasons. Natural Heritage / Natural History Inc., 338pp.
Sadler,D (1983) Our Heritage of Birds: Peterborough County in the Kawarthas. Peterborough Field Naturalists / Orchid Press, Peterborough, ON, 192pp.
Theberge,JB (1989) Singing wings. In "The Natural History of Ontario" (Theberge,JB editor), McClelland & Stewart Inc., Toronto, 397pp., 349-351.
Whelan,P (1993) The bride and groom wore binoculars. Globe and Mail, 1p., 02 January.