The Buzz

Happening now: Male woodcocks performing their elaborate courtship ritual

Two American woodcocks in the grass.
(Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Spring is creeping in all around us, and in the bird world one of the earliest signs of its impending arrival is the return of American woodcocks to our area, which usually happens right around this time each year. 

A good cue that woodcocks are around or soon will be is the sight and sound of sandhill cranes flying overhead and the presence of red-winged blackbirds and robins in larger numbers.

"They tend to move in with the weather where it allows open ground for them to get food," said Bob Bryerton, a program coordinator at Plum Creek Nature Center, adding that because they feed on the ground a lack of snow and ice cover is essential for them. "If it warms up enough and the ground is open for them to find food, then they arrive."

The woodcocks' arrival is celebrated not just because it's a sign of spring but because these birds are unique in several ways, making them a favorite of many. First off, they have a lot of fun-sounding nicknames, like the timberdoodle, Labrador twister, bog sucker and night partridge. They're also pretty funny-looking birds. 

"They have a long bill, kind of a plump body, short wings and a stubby tail," Bryerton said. "Their eyes sit high on the head near the top and back."

Their unusual look is related to their unusual anatomy. For starters, their brains are, essentially, upside down, according to the National Audubon Society. A woodcock's cerebellum, which controls balance and muscle coordination, is under the rest of the brain, sitting just above the spinal column, but in most birds the cerebellum is at the rear of the skull. Researchers theorize that they evolved with this adaptation to better allow them to dig into the ground with their bills to find insects. Over time, their bills became longer and their eyes moved farther to the sides of their heads, and this also changed their brain anatomy.

The fact that they have big eyes that are located on the sides of their heads gives them good peripheral vision, the Audubon Society reports. This helps them keep an eye out for predators while they are probing into the dirt for their foods of choice, including earthworms, insects and other invertebrates. Scientists believe woodcocks probably can't even see the ends of their bills, but they are still easily able to find food because their bills are loaded with sensory receptors.

Their classification as sandpipers is also unusual when you consider that these birds aren't ever seen on sandy beaches or muddy shorelines like other sandpipers. "They really do share a great deal of characteristics and behaviors with sandpipers and other shore birds. They just don’t hang out at the beach and instead prefer the woods and fields," Bryerton said. 

Woodcocks are usually found in shrubby deciduous forests, old fields or areas that combine these habitats, Bryerton said. Many Will County preserves have good habitat for woodcocks, particularly at this time of year. Some of the preserves woodcocks are known to inhabit include Goodenow Grove Nature Preserve, Hickory Creek Preserve, Kankakee Sands Preserve, Lake Chaminwood Preserve, Lake Renwick Preserve, Lockport Prairie Nature Preserve, McKinley Woods, Messenger Marsh, Monee Reservoir, O'Hara Woods Preserve, Raccoon Grove Nature Preserve, Plum Valley Preserve and Whalon Lake.

The woodcock can be difficult to find in its habitat because its mottled brown plumage is good camouflage on the forest floor. The best way to see them in the spring is to watch for them at sunset, when males will perform an elaborate courtship flight to attract a female mate. 

Males will start performing this "sky dance" right around the time they arrive and will continue through most of the spring. The performance starts on the ground, with the male birds making a buzzing type sound, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Then they take to the air, flying upward in a spiraling motion. As they go higher and higher, their wings will make a twittering noise until they begin their descent. They move in a zigzag pattern on the way down, chirping as they go, until they land silently before starting the process all over again.

Outside of this elaborate display, it can be difficult to catch sight of a woodcock, said Forest Preserve District volunteer Joel Craig. 

"Unless you specifically go out to observe the amazing post-sunset sky dance that is a distinctive part of the mating ritual, you’d be hard-pressed to find them in the wild," Craig said. "Their coloring pattern helps them to camouflage well in the tall grass where they nest. Your best bet in finding area woodcocks is to listen for their unique 'peent' call, beginning about a half hour after sunset or, if you’re an early riser, prior to sunrise."

Craig has been lucky enough to see these unique birds in action at Lake Renwick and was also fortunate to catch the birds' entertaining bobbing walking style on video. This unusual walk is thought to stimulate worm activity underground, making it easier for the birds to find food, Bryerton said.

 

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If you want to catch sight of these birds, Craig offered some tips.

"A good way to find them is to simply drive the backroads, slowly and with your windows down, after sunset and listen to their call," he said. "You'll find them in ditches with long grass. ... If you're lucky, you'll also get to witness the sky dance of the male." 

Since woodcocks nest and feed on the ground, it should come as no surprise that aside from their courtship flight, the most likely place to see these birds is on the ground.

"They tend to feed and are most active mainly at dawn and dusk, so they are much less likely to be spotted during the day," Bryerton said. "Oftentimes the only way people see them during the day is if they are walking in the woods and get too close to the nest where the bird is sitting and flush it, sometimes practically stepping on the bird before it moves." 

Woodcocks remain in the area until fall, but once the courtship period is over it can be very hard to find them, he said, adding that the mating display usually continues until about June 1. After courtship begins nesting season, with many eggs hatching in late spring or early summer. 

Because they nest on the ground, woodcock nestlings have to be able to walk within a few hours of hatching, Bryerton said. Their mothers will feed them for a few days, then the young birds will start probing into the soil for worms and insects on their own. After about a month, the birds are entirely independent.

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