Interestingly enough, the American woodcock is considered a shorebird but is not found along the shore. Its ideal habitat is amongst the leaf litter of deciduous forests or hidden in shrub covered fields. The woodcock is a migratory bird species and spends its winters in the warmer regions of Texas and along the Gulf Coast states before traveling north in early spring to breed within the younger forests across the eastern United States. This is perhaps the most striking part of the American woodcock’s ecology. Their mating rituals during springtime have long been recognized as one of the more impressive displays of courtship found in nature. In the classic book, Sand County Almanac, famous conservationist Aldo Leopold describes his experience witnessing a dancing male:
“Knowing the place and the hour, you seat yourself under a bush to the east of the dance floor and wait, watching against the sunset for the woodcock’s arrival. He flies in low from some neighboring thicket, alights on the bare moss, and at once begins the overture: a series of queer throaty peents spaced about two seconds apart, and sounding much like the summer call of the nighthawk.
Suddenly the peenting ceases and the bird flutters skyward in a series of wide spirals, emitting a musical twitter. Up and up he goes, the spirals steeper and smaller, the twittering louder and louder, until the performer is only a speck in the sky. Then, without warning, he tumbles like a crippled plane, giving voice in a soft liquid warble that a March bluebird might envy. At a few feet from the ground he levels off and returns to his peenting ground, usually to the exact spot where the performance began, and there resumes his peenting.
It is soon too dark to see the bird on the ground, but you can see his flights against the sky for an hour, which is the usual duration of the show. On moonlight nights, however, it may continue, at intervals, as long as the moon continues to shine …”
The American woodcock is indeed a compelling and amusing bird, but what has happened to it? Why is it a rare sight in the state of Massachusetts and throughout the rest of the eastern U.S.? As mentioned above, the woodcock thrives in younger forests where the thicket community is much denser. This habitat provides excellent cover for the bird, thereby increasing its chances for survival. Unfortunately, less than 5% of forests in Massachusetts are considered young forest habitats. This is largely due to maintenance of private landowners whose practices have resulted in older, mature forests and consequently have contributed to the decline of woodcock populations in the state. This could be why we do not see as many courtship displays as we used to.
What’s being done to help the American woodcock? The Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife has teamed up with The Ruffed Grouse Society, the Wildlife Management Institute and Cowl’s Land and Lumber Company of North Amherst to lead the American Woodcock Initiative. Click here to read more about the program and find out what is being done to restore important habitat for woodcocks and other animals.