By Joel D. Glover, Wildlife Biologist
Wildlife biologists are often asked to identify a species of wildlife based upon either a physical description or a sound. These identifications are often difficult and hinge on the accuracy of the description or how well the viewer can mimic or describe the sound. The sound was described as a high-pitched deer bleat type sound. I was also told that the bird making the sound appeared to be spiraling up into the air. The combination of the sound and the spiraling flight made solving this mystery relatively easy. The species in question was the American woodcock.
Found throughout Alabama, the American woodcock is a unique bird in many ways. Although a relative to the sandpiper, the woodcock is a forest bird. The American woodcock is a short, plump bird with a long bill and large eyes set high and far back on the head. Its eyes sit so far back on its head that the woodcock can see all around, including behind itself. Their head appears to sit on the body with no neck. The woodcock, or “timber doodle” as it is often called, has short legs that are positioned so far back on its body that it ambles about with an odd front-back bobbing gait. The plumage of both sexes is a dead-leaf camouflage pattern of mixed brown, buff, gray, and black.
The woodcock’s most recognizable feature is its two to three-inch-long prehensile bill. The long pencil-thin beak has nerves up to the tip to help the woodcock locate prey under the soil. The beak is specialized so that it can be opened at the tip to grasp earthworms and pull them from the soil. Earthworms make up 50 to 90 percent of the woodcock’s diet. In addition to earthworms, woodcock eat insect larvae slugs, snails, insects and some seeds including smartweed, dogwood and blackberry.
The male woodcock’s courtship display is unique and interesting to observe. At sunset, he flies to the “singing ground” and gives an insect-like “peent” call, which may be repeated up to 200 times in a five-minute period. The male flies upward in spiraling circles about 200 feet in diameter. He climbs higher and higher in an ever-smaller circle until he is 200 to 300 feet high. During his ascent, his rapid wing beats create a twittering sound. After reaching his apex the bird starts chirping and begins to descend. He returns to the ground in a zigzag, diving fashion. Upon landing he repeats the whole scenario. He may repeat the display over and over for half an hour or longer. This display normally takes place in an open field or clearcut area near moist soil habitat.
Fortunately, identifying the American woodcock is relatively easy. However, Alabama is home to a vast array of wildlife. Many species such as the American woodcock are quite unique. Step outside and experience Alabama’s wildlife for yourself. Remember to take a child with you and share the wonder.