American woodcock (Scolopax minor)

KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderCharadriiformes
FamilyScolopacidae
GenusScolopax (1)
SizeMale length: 25 - 28 cm (2)
Female length: 27 - 31 cm (2)
Male weight: 116 - 219 g (2)
Female weight: 151 - 279 g (2)

The American woodcock is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

A striking and unusual-looking bird, the American woodcock (Scolopax minor) has richly patterned plumage, consisting of varying shades of browns, greys and blacks that provide it with excellent camouflage for its forested habitat. Its breast is lightly cinnamon-coloured, and it has a grey and black head with a series of three or four black bars across the crown (3). The American woodcock has a rather plump, round body and no apparent neck (3).

Perhaps the most striking features of the American woodcock are the large high-set eyes, which give it excellent, almost all-round vision (5), and its unusually long, specialised beak (3). The beak has a flexible tip which probably helps it ‘feel’ earthworms as it probes the ground (2) (4).

Both the male and female American woodcock have a very similar appearance. The female is typically substantially larger and heavier than the male (2) (3). The juvenile American woodcock may be separated from the adult by a distinct light and dark coloured band on the secondaries (3). 

The American woodcock has a wide distribution, ranging from southern Canada, south through the central and eastern United States to the Gulf of Mexico (2) (3).

It breeds mainly in New England and the Great Lakes states, although the extent of breeding is somewhat limited throughout its entire range. The American woodcock typically winters in the Gulf States, although the breeding and winter ranges of this species may overlap (2).

The American woodcock is typically associated with young, second-growth hardwood forest and abandoned farmland that has some mixed forest and shrubs (2) (3).

It requires moist forested areas that provide cover and foraging opportunities, and clearings for singing grounds, courtship displays and roosting sites. The American woodcock also uses dense stands of saplings for nesting and brood rearing (2) (3).

The characteristic, highly specialised bill of the American woodcock makes it supremely efficient at hunting earthworms, its primary food source (2). The tip of the bill contains numerous nerve endings that help it detect the movement of worms and other invertebrates as it probes the soil (3). Interestingly, the American woodcock may rock its body back and forth as it slowly walks on the forest floor, stepping heavily with its feet. It is possible that this behaviour may cause the earthworms to move around in the soil below, making them easier to detect (4).

Another distinguishing characteristic of the American woodcock is the elaborate courtship ritual displayed by the male to attract a female. The male American woodcock establishes a territory, called a ‘singing ground’, in an open field, where it will participate in aerial displays to attract a mate. The male begins at dusk by walking around a small area of no more than a few square metres, uttering a low, nasal ‘peent’. After some time, the male stops calling, and begins a slow, spiralling, ascent upwards to between 100 and 200 feet. During this climb, the tips of the male’s wings create a constant twittering sound, which is replaced by chirping during the rapid, zigzagging descent. The male American woodcock repeats this unusual courtship act again and again, even after mating, until well after dark (3) (6).

The American woodcock is polygynous, meaning that it mates with multiple members of the opposite sex. The male American woodcock gives no parental care once mating has occurred, and the female may visit as many as four singing grounds before nesting (2). The nests are placed on the ground (2), and the clutch usually consists of up to four eggs (3). The young American woodcock chicks need help feeding when they first hatch, though they begin probing for insects by the end of the first week (7). The chicks fledge around 15 days after hatching, and they reach full size rapidly, usually after around 30 days (3).

Degradation of habitat seems to be the dominant reason for declining populations of the American woodcock, generally due to development, succession or forest maturation. Changes in forestry practices mean that disturbance to forests, including fire suppression and reductions in tree felling, is often limited, which has led many habitats to become less suitable for the American woodcock (6).

 The American woodcock is also regularly hunted for sport (2) (4).

There are several conservation measures in place to maintain the population of the American woodcock and ensure that it doesn’t decline to threateningly low levels. Despite this, many practices are localised and the amount of protection afforded this species varies among areas (8). The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) conduct annual population studies to monitor gaming practices and ensure that they are in line with population stability (8). Occasionally, reductions in bag limit and length of hunting seasons for the American woodcock may also be introduced (2).

Recommended conservation actions for the American woodcock include adapting forest management practices to provide suitably large areas of shrubland and young forest, needed by this species to breed successfully (2).

Although the American woodcock’s population currently appears to be declining, especially in the eastern parts of its range, this species appears to be making increasing use of northern coniferous forests that have been opened up by large-scale harvesting. This suggests that it may be extending its distribution northward and westward (2).

  1. IUCN Red List (July, 2011)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. Keppie, D.M. and Whiting, R.M. Jr., (1994) American Woodcock, Scolopax minor. In: Poole, A. (Ed.) The Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
    http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/100
  3. Roberts, T.H. (1989) American Woodcock (Scolopax minor): Section 4.1.2, US Army Corps of Engineers Wildlife Resources Management Manual. Technical Report EL-89-5, US Army Engineer Waterways ExperimentStation, Vicksburg, Mississippi.
  4. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds - American woodcock, Scolopax minor (July, 2011)
    http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/american_woodcock/id
  5. Jones, M.P., Pierce, K.E. and Ward, D. (2007) Avian vision: a review of form and function with special consideration to birds of prey. Journal of Exotic Pet Medicine, 16(2): 69-87.
  6. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation - American woodcock (Scolopax minor) (July, 2011)
    http://www.dec.ny.gov/animals/45448.html
  7. Gregg, L. (1984) Population ecology of woodcock in Wisconsin. Technical Bulletin No. 144, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Wisconsin.
  8. Cooper, T.R. and Parker, K. (2011) American Woodcock Population Status. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Division of Migratory Bird Management, Maryland.

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

  1. IUCN Red List (March, 2011)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org