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American Woodcock
Conservation status
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Subclass: Neornithes
Infraclass: Neognathae
Superorder: Neoaves
Order: Charadriiformes
Suborder: Scolopaci
Family: Scolopacidae
Genus: Scolopax
Species: S. minor
Binomial name
Scolopax minor
Gmelin, 1789

Philohela minor

The American Woodcock (Scolopax minor) is a small chunky shorebird species found in eastern North America. Woodcock spend most of their time on the ground in brushy, young-forest habitats, where the birds' brown, black, and gray plumage provides excellent camouflage.

Because of the male Woodcock's beautiful, intriguing courtship flights, the bird is welcomed as a harbinger of spring in northern areas. It is also a popular game bird, with about 540,000 bagged annually by some 133,000 hunters in the U.S. [1]

The American Woodcock is the only species of Woodcock inhabiting North America[2]. Although classified with the sandpipers and shorebirds in Family Scolopacidae, the American Woodcock lives mainly in upland settings. Its many folk names include timberdoodle, bogsucker, night partridge, brush snipe, hokumpoke, and becasse[3].

The population of the American Woodcock has fallen by an average of slightly more than 1 percent annually since the 1960s. Most authorities attribute this decline to a loss of habitat caused by forest maturation and urban development.

In 2008 wildlife biologists and conservationists released an American Woodcock Conservation Plan presenting figures for the acreage of young forest that must be created and maintained in the U.S. and Canada to stabilize the Woodcock population at current levels, and to return it to 1970s densities[4].

Physical characteristics

The American Woodcock has a plump body, short legs, a large, rounded head, and a long, straight bill. Adults are 10 to 12 inches long and weigh 5 to 8 ounces [5]. Females are considerably larger than males[6]. The bill is 2.5 to 2.75 inches long[7].

The plumage is a cryptic mix of different shades of browns, grays, and black. The breast and sides vary from yellowish white to rich tans[8]. The nape of the head is black, with three or four crossbars of deep buff or rufous. [9] The feet and toes, which are small and weak, are brownish gray to reddish brown[10].

Woodcock have large eyes located high in the head, and their visual field is probably the largest of any bird, 360° in the horizontal plane and 180° in the vertical plane[11].

The Woodcock uses its long bill to probe in the soil for food, mainly invertebrates and especially earthworms. A unique bone-and-muscle arrangement lets the bird open and close the tip of its upper bill, or mandible, while it is sunk in the ground. Both the underside of the upper mandible and the long tongue are rough-surfaced for grasping slippery prey[12].


Woodcock inhabit forested and mixed forest-agricultural-urban areas east of the 98th Meridian. Woodcock have been sighted as far north as York Factory, Manitoba, east to Labrador and Newfoundland. In winter, they go as far south as the Gulf Coast States[13].

Breeding range

The primary breeding range extends from Atlantic Canada (Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and New Brunswick) west to southeastern Manitoba, and south to northern Virginia, western North Carolina, northern Tennessee, Illinois, Missouri, and eastern Kansas. Some Woodcock breed as far south as Florida and Texas. The species may be expanding its distribution northward and westward[14].

Wintering range

After migrating south in autumn, most Woodcock spend the winter in the Gulf Coast states. Some may remain as far north as southern Maryland, eastern Virginia, and southern New Jersey. The core of the wintering range centers on Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia [15]. Based on the Christmas Bird Count results, winter concentrations are highest in the northern half of Alabama.


Woodcock eat mainly invertebrates, particularly earthworms (Oligochaeta). They do most of their feeding in places where the soil is moist and has a high pH and/or nitrogen level. They forage by probing in soft soil in thickets, where they usually remain well-hidden from sight. Other items in the diet include snails, centipedes, millipedes, spiders, snipe flies, beetles, and ants. A small amount of plant food is eaten, mainly seeds[16]. Woodcock are crepuscular, being most active at dawn and dusk.


Woodcock migrate at night. They fly at low altitudes, individually or in small, loose flocks. Flight speeds of migrating birds have been clocked at 16 to 28 miles per hour (26 to 45 kilometers per hour). It is believed that Woodcock orient visually using major physiographic features such as coastlines and broad river valleys[17]. Both the autumn and spring migrations are leisurely compared with the swift, direct migrations of many passerine birds.

In the North, Woodcock begin to shift southward before ice and snow seal off their ground-based food supply. Cold fronts may prompt heavy southerly flights in autumn. Most Woodcock start to migrate in October, with the major push from mid-October to early November</ref>Sepik and Derleth (1993)</ref>. Most individuals arrive on the wintering range by mid-December. The birds head north again in February. Most have returned to the northern breeding range by mid-March to mid-April[18].

Migrating birds' arrival at and departure from the breeding range is highly irregular. In Ohio, for example, the earliest birds are seen in February, but the bulk of the population does not arrive until March and April. Birds start to leave for winter by September, but some remain until mid-November.[19]


In Spring, males occupy individual singing grounds, openings near brushy cover from which they call and perform display flights at dawn and dusk, and if the light levels are high enough on moonlit nights. The male's ground call is a short, buzzy peent. After sounding a series of ground calls, the male takes off and flies from 50 to 100 yards into the air. He descends, zigzagging and banking while singing a liquid, chirping song[20]. This high spiralling flight produces a melodious twittering sound as air rushes through the male's outer primary wing feathers.[21]

Males may continue with their courtship flights for as many as four months running – sometimes continuing even after females have already hatched their broods and left the nest.

Females, known as hens, are attracted to the males' displays. A hen will fly in and land on the ground near a singing male. The male courts the female by walking stiff-legged and with his wings stretched vertically, and by bobbing and bowing. A male may mate with several females. The male Woodcock plays no role in selecting a nest site, incubating eggs, or rearing young. In the primary northern breeding range, the Woodcock may be the earliest ground-nesting species to breed[22].

Nesting and young

The hen makes a shallow, rudimentary nest on the ground in the leaf and twig litter, in brushy or young-forest cover usually within 150 yards of a singing ground[23]. Most hens lay four eggs, sometimes one to three. Incubation takes 20 to 22 days[24].

The downy young are already well-camouflaged

The down-covered young are precocial and leave the nest within a few hours of hatching[25]. The female broods her young and feeds them. When threatened, the chicks usually take cover and remain motionless, attempting to escape detection by relying on their cryptic coloration. Some observers suggest that frightened young may cling to the body of their mother, who will then take wing and carry the young to safety[26].

Woodcock chicks begin probing for worms on their own a few days after hatching. They develop quickly and can make short flights after two weeks, can fly fairly well at three weeks, and are independent after about five weeks,ref>Kaufman (1996)</ref>.


American Woodcock live in wet thickets, moist woods, and brushy swamps[27]. Ideal habitats feature young forest and abandoned farmland mixed with forest. In late summer, some Woodcock roost on the ground at night among sparse, patchy vegetation[28].

  • Breeding habitats include forest openings, roadsides, pastures, and old fields from which males call and launch courtship flights in springtime.
  • Nesting habitats include thickets, shrubland, and young to mid-age forest interspersed with openings.
  • Feeding habitats have moist soil and feature densely growing young trees such as aspen (Populus sp.), birch (Betula sp.), and mixed hardwoods less than 20 years of age, and shrubs, particularly alder (Alnus sp.).
  • Roosting habitats are semi-open sites with short, sparse plant cover, such as blueberry barrens, pastures, and recently logged woodland[29].

Population status

It is not known how many Woodcock were present in eastern North America before European settlement. Colonial agriculture, with its patchwork of family farms and open-range livestock grazing, probably supported healthy Woodcock populations[30].

The Woodcock population remained high during the early and mid-twentieth century, after many family farms were abandoned as people moved to urban areas, and cropfields and pastures grew up in brush. In recent decades, those formerly brushy acres have become middle-aged and older forest, where Woodcock rarely venture, or they have been covered with buildings and other human developments. Because its population has been declining, the American Woodcock is considered a "species of greatest conservation need" in many states, triggering research and habitat-creation efforts in an attempt to boost Woodcock populations.

Population trends have been measured through springtime Breeding Bird Surveys and, in the northern breeding range, springtime singing-ground surveys[31]. Data suggest that the Woodcock population has fallen rangewide by an average of 1.1 percent yearly over the last four decades[32].


The American Woodcock is not considered globally threatened by the IUCN. It is more tolerant of deforestation than other woodcocks and snipes; as long as some sheltered woodland remains for breeding, it can thrive even in regions that are mainly used for agriculture.[33] The estimated population is 5 million, so it is the most common sandpiper in North America.[21]

The American Woodcock Conservation Plan presents regional action plans linked to Bird Conservation Regions (BCRs), fundamental biological units recognized by the U.S. North American Bird Conservation Initiative. The Wildlife Management Institute (WMI) oversees regional habitat initiatives intended to boost the American Woodcock’s population by protecting, renewing, and creating habitat throughout the species’ range[34].

Creating young-forest habitat for American Woodcock helps more than 50 other species of wildlife that need young forest during part or all of their life cycles. These include relatively common animals such as white-tailed deer, snowshoe hare, moose, bobcat, wild turkey, and ruffed grouse, and animals whose populations have also declined in recent decades, such as the golden-winged warbler, whip-poor-will, willow flycatcher, indigo bunting, and New England cottontail[35]


  1. ^ Cooper and Parker (2009)
  2. ^ Kaufman (1996)
  3. ^ Sheldon (1971)
  4. ^ Kelley, et al. (2008)
  5. ^ Smith, Christopher (2000)
  6. ^ Keppie and Whiting (1994)
  7. ^ Sheldon (1971)
  8. ^ Keppie and Whiting (1994)
  9. ^ Sheldon (1971)
  10. ^ Keppie and Whiting (1994)
  11. ^ Jones et al. (2007)
  12. ^ Sheldon (1971)
  13. ^ Keppie and Whiting (1994)
  14. ^ Keppie and Whiting (1994)
  15. ^ Keppie and Whiting (1994)
  16. ^ Keppie and Whiting (1994)
  17. ^ Keppie and Whiting (1994)
  18. ^ Keppie and Whiting (1994)
  19. ^ OOS (2004)
  20. ^ Keppie and Whiting (1994)
  21. ^ a b O'Brien et al. (2006)
  22. ^ Keppie and Whiting (1994)
  23. ^ Sheldon (1971)
  24. ^ Kaufman (1996)
  25. ^ Keppie and Whiting (1994)
  26. ^ Mann (1991)
  27. ^ Kaufman (1996)
  28. ^ Keppie and Whiting (1994)
  29. ^ Keppie and Whiting (1994)
  30. ^ Sheldon (1971)
  31. ^ Keppie and Whiting (1994)
  32. ^ Kelley, et al. (2008)
  33. ^ Henninger (1906), BLI (2008)
  34. ^ Kelley, et al. (2008)
  35. ^ the Woodcock Management Plan].


  • BirdLife International (BLI) (2008). Scolopax minor. In: IUCN 2008. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Downloaded on 20 May 2009.
  • Henninger, W.F. (1906): A preliminary list of the birds of Seneca County, Ohio. Wilson Bull. 18(2): 47-60. DjVu fulltext PDF fulltext
  • Jones, Michael P.; Pierce, Kenneth E. & Ward, Daniel (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. doi:10.1053/j.jepm.2007.03.012 (HTML abstract)
  • Mann, Clive F. (1991): Sunda Frogmouth Batrachostomus cornutus carrying its young. Forktail 6: 77-78. PDF fulltext
  • O'Brien, Michael; Crossley, Richard & Karlson, Kevin (2006): The Shorebird Guide. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, pp. 444–445.
  • Ohio Ornithological Society (OOS) (2004): Annotated Ohio state checklist. Version of April 2004. PDF fulltext
  • Cooper, T. R. & K. Parker (2009): American woodcock population status, 2009. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Laurel, Maryland.
  • Kaufman, Kenn (1996): Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin, pp. 225-226.
  • Sheldon, William G. (1971): Book of the American Woodcock. University of Massachusetts.
  • Kelley, James; Williamson, Scot & Cooper, Thomas, eds. (2008): American Woodcock Conservation Plan: A Summary of and Recommendations for Woodcock Conservation in North America.
  • Smith, Christopher (2000): Field Guide to Upland Birds and Waterfowl. Wilderness Adventures Press, pp. 28-29.
  • Keppie, D. M. & R. M. Whiting, Jr. (1994): American Woodcock (Scolopax minor), The Birds of North America Online:
  • Sepik, G. F. and E. L. Derleth (1993): Habitat use, home range size, and patterns of moves of the American Woodcock in Maine. in Proc. Eighth Woodcock Symp. (Longcore, J. R. and G. F. Sepik, eds.) Biol. Rep. 16, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Washington, D.C.

Further reading

  • Choiniere, Joe (2006): Seasons of the Woodcock: The secret life of a woodland shorebird. Sanctuary 45(4): 3-5.
  • Sepik, Greg F.; Owen, Roy & Coulter, Malcolm (1981): A Landowner's Guide to Woodcock Management in the Northeast, Misc. Report 253, Maine Agricultural Experiment Station, University of Maine.

External links

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