Bird of the Week: American Woodcock
This is simply the grooviest bird you will ever see.
Helloooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo it’s Bird of the Week time once again! And this bird………OH MY GOD THIS BIRD. When I tell you this bird is stupendous, when I tell you it’s tremendous, when I tell you it’s a classic, when I tell you it’s fantastic, I mean every single word. DRUM ROLL PLEASE DRUM ROLL DRUM ROLL DRUM ROLL………….
MEET. THE. AMERICAN. WOODCOCK.
This photo comes from birder extraordinaire and friend of the blog Ryan Mandelbaum, but they’re not the only Discourse comrade who stans the woodcock (and yes, I know the name is humorous, will not be accepting any commentary, this is science we’re doing here). MULTIPLE readers answered our call for bird suggestions with some variation on “you gotta write about the woodcock!!!” And boy were they all too correct. Why is this bird amazing? Let us count the ways.
First of all…look at it. Is that a top bird or is that a top bird? It meets my ultimate bird criteria of being both very cute AND very weird. The round smallness makes you go “awww,” and then that giant beak gets involved and oh my god things have been kicked UP a notch. (A writer for the Bangor Daily News opined that it looks like it’s “been assembled from the spare parts of other birds,” but I think that’s uncharitable. It’s cute!)
Why the heck does it look like that? For food and defense, naturally, as Audubon helpfully lays out:
This rotund, short-legged bird hides in forest thickets by day, where it uses its long bill to probe in damp soil for earthworms. Its eyes are set far back on its head, allowing it to watch for danger even with its bill buried in the dirt.
Nature thinks of absolutely everything. The earthworm is the American woodcock’s all-time favorite meal, though it won’t turn its bill up at a wide variety of insects and other creepy-crawly things. Let’s do another picture.
Maaaaahvelous. Another great thing about the woodcock? It has some of the best names you will ever find in a bird, or human, or dog, or spider, or howler monkey, or carp, or—ok I’m saying that these are top-notch names. Besides the woodcock, they include (sources here and here and here and here):
Need I say more? “Hey, there’s a hokumpoke in the brush! Whoa, check out the mudbat!” Too good, TOO GOOD.
According to timberdoodle.org, it’s mainly known as the woodcock because it…likes the woods. Which is true! There are a few types of woodcocks around the world, but the American woodcock is the only one hanging out in North America, where you can find it roaming all the way along the East Coast from Canada down to Florida, and far into the Midwest as well. Apparently it’s also a revered game bird, which I don’t love, but those are the facts.
OK, onto the most spectacular thing about the American woodcock: the way it moves!!!! It is simply one of the grooviest birds you will ever see, starting with the male woodcock’s inimitable “sky dance,” which heralds the arrival of the spring mating season. Over to Audubon’s Andy McGlashen:
At twilight, along their spring migration route and on their breeding grounds, male American Woodcocks perform a quirky mating ritual all their own. The spectacle begins with the bird issuing a series of nasally peent calls from the ground. Here’s the play-by-play on what ensues, from the great naturalist Aldo Leopold’s “Sky Dance” essay in his classic A Sand County Almanac:
Suddenly the peenting ceases and the bird flutters skyward in a series of wide spirals, emitting a musical twitter. Up and up he goes, the spirals steeper and smaller, the twittering louder and louder, until the performer is only a speck in the sky. Then, without warning, he tumbles like a crippled plane, giving voice in a soft liquid warble that a March bluebird might envy. At a few feet from the ground he levels off and returns to his peenting ground, usually to the exact spot where the performance began, and there resumes his peenting.
It’s actually quite hard to capture this on video, but someone got a pretty good look using an infrared camera:
And here’s a look at ground level:
Wonderful. But it’s not just in the air that the woodcock dances. It dances all over the place! It’s probably known best for its unaccountably funky, back-and-forth rocking walk. Look at this:
That one has kind of cheesy music, but I’m willing to forgive, because it’s so tempting to put this bird to music! Here’s the bird dancing to “Tequila”:
A+++++. Why does the woodcock do this? The short answer is….we don’t really know. Theories include that it’s a way to make worms more visible in the soil, or that it’s something to do with fending off predators. There are a few others too, but no definitive answer. Don’t you kind of love that? Nature is mysterious!
Unfortunately, not all is well in the woodcock world. A lot of woodcocks wind up in big cities like New York, which lies along their normal migration path, and they get killed or injured flying into glass buildings. This is a reminder that we need to get a move on having more bird-friendly glass! And on a broader scale, they are threatened by, you guessed it, human activity—namely deforestation and the loss of their natural habitats. This is a reminder that we have to stop being literally the worst things on the planet, or else there won’t be any woodcocks for us to marvel at.
OK, that’s it for now. Thank you American Woodcock!!!! And a reminder: you can check out our complete Bird of the Week list here, and get in touch with your bird suggestions at email@example.com. Until next time!!!!