Thursday, July 17, 2014

The American Woodcock (a.k.a. Timberdoodle)

During the summer in Missouri, you might catch a glimpse of a squat, strange-looking little member of the shorebird family called a Woodcock.
These funny little fellows, also called Timberdoodles, can be quite elusive, not because they are threatened (they’re actually listed as a species of least concern), but because they have such darn good camouflage.

Unlike its coastal cousins, the American Woodcock spends most of its time on the ground in fields or on the forest floor, where its buff, brown, and black coloration makes it incredibly difficult to spot. Like other shorebirds, the Woodcock has a long slender bill, which it uses to probe the soil for worms and other invertebrates. The very tip of this bird’s bill has the ability to open and close while underground, enabling it to snatch up slippery prey.

Because this little bird spends much of its time with its bill to the ground, the Woodcock has evolved a unique way of keeping an eye out for predators – it has eyes in the back of its head. Okay, not quite, but it comes close. Woodcocks have eyes located high and near the back of their skulls. This placement not only allows them to watch the sky while they forage, it also gives them one of the largest fields of vision of any bird, able to see nearly 360 degrees around them horizontally.

The American Woodcock is a migratory bird; though migration is irregular and not easily observed, since these birds often migrate individually or in small groups, and migrate at night. They only migrate a short distance, if at all.  Migratory flights are leisurely and at low altitudes. In fact, the American Woodcock lays claim to the slowest flight ever recorded. Although normal migratory flights of the Woodcock range from 16 to 28 miles per hour, Woodcocks have been clocked at a whopping 5 miles per hour in flight.

The American Woodcock nests in the springtime, with the female laying her eggs in a shallow nest on the ground. Males will mate with multiple females, so the male provides no parental care. When the young hatch, they only spend a few hours in the nest before venturing out with mom. These precocious youngsters (meaning able to fend for themselves very soon after hatching) still depend on their mother for food for about a week before beginning to probe for food themselves.

American Woodcocks are a game bird; one of the few shorebirds still hunted. Well managed hunting does not appear to greatly affect their populations.  Recent declines are due to habitat loss. It is important to preserve shrubland and young forests as breeding grounds for these birds. It may not seem an urgent cause now, but taking steps to conserve a species is much easier than bringing a species back from the brink of extinction. It would truly be a shame to lose such a unique bird.

The next time you walk one of the woodland trails at the World Bird Sanctuary, keep an eye out for “Timberdoodles”.  You never know when one of these unique birds might erupt from almost under your feet

Submitted by Johanna Burton, World Bird Sanctuary Naturalist


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