If Birds Could Be Clowns, This One Would Fit The Bill

Photo of an American Woodcock, a bizarre looking woodland shorebird in the sandpiper family
Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Keith Ramo

The American woodcock (Scolopax minor)– aka Timberdoodle, Bog sucker, Mudsnipe, Hokumpoke, Night partridge, Labrador twister, and Mud bat to name a few – is a bizarre looking woodland shorebird in the sandpiper family with unique looks and interesting behaviors.

Woodcock adaptations include an exceptionally long probing bill with a flexible tip, ideal for finding their diet of mostly earthworms in swampy soil. Their eyes are located on the side of their head to better see predators while feeding. And if that didn’t make them funny looking enough, they are short legged, have a body shaped like a football and a bobbing, hesitating style strut! Check out this video: American Woodcock Strut

One of the earliest migrants to Wisconsin, woodcock fly here during the dark of night in March and April from wintering grounds in the southeastern United States. They are among the slowest of flying birds clocking speeds of only six miles per hour. Woodcock breed in all Wisconsin counties and can be found at Wehr Nature Center on our upper prairie and savanna and throughout Whitnall Park! Males exhibit a remarkable courtship display of spiraling courtship flights during short periods at dawn and dusk. The male woodcock begin this display on the ground by making nasally peent sounds. Even more strange – they twitter kissing sounding chirps during the twirling flights – all while their specialized wings whistle during the ascent. These displays can be seen in Wisconsin beginning early in spring, into June and even sometimes early July. Here’s a video of that: American Woodcock Sky Dance and peents

American woodcock use open areas such as forest cuttings or fields for their singing grounds and roosting, but females nest and raise brood in young forest succession of up to 15-20-year-old tree. Little use of old growth forest has been found.

Nests are formed close to the singing grounds. Female woodcock shape a shallow depression in leafy twig litter on the ground for their nest. Both hen, eggs and chicks are cryptic colored and well camouflaged. Hen woodcock will lay 1-5 eggs and incubate them for 20-22 days. The highly precocial young leave the nest soon after hatching and begin to fly in about 3 weeks – becoming almost fully grown in 4 weeks!

The American woodcock has a lifespan of about 7-10 years and populations are declining due to habitat loss. Hopefully learning about this iconic shorebird of Wisconsin will help you discover your own woodcock doing a famous sky dance!

Holly Walz, Environmental Educator, Wehr Nature Center

*sources: Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Wisconsin, Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America, The Sibley Guide to Birds