The American Woodcock (Scolopax minor) is an important species in Vermont and throughout the northeast, offering many hours of recreational enjoyment for hunters and non-hunters alike. The woodcock is a member of the family Scolopacidae, commonly known as the sandpiper or shorebird family, which includes dowitchers, yellowlegs, and snipe.
With its distinctive, long flexible bill, the woodcock spends much of its day satisfying its voracious appetite by probing the moist soils of alder and dogwood swales for earthworms and other soil invertebrates.
The American Woodcock has specific habitat requirements, and the population is limited by the availability of these habitats.
The ideal habitat for the woodcock consists of two distinct types of cover: forests with moist soils are used for nesting, brood rearing, and feeding, and abandoned fields and forests openings, referred to as "singing grounds" are used for roosting and courtship rituals.
For its feeding and nesting ground, the woodcock seeks out wooded and shrubby areas for protection from avian predators. The ideal cover is also fairly clear below, and not too thick and brushy so as to allow the woodcock to also detect ground dwelling predators easily.
Typically, the bird chooses stands of Speckled alder and Gray dogwood to meet these needs, although other species of young hardwoods and softwoods will also do. Since the woodcock's diet is composed primarily of earthworms, these woods also need to have a rich, moist loam and sandy loam soil, which is where these and other invertebrates can be found.
Typically, soil abundant with invertebrate life is associated with the edges of water bodies, flood plains, farmlands, and beaver ponds. The woodcock does not need large tracts of land to meet all these requirements; an area of 25 acres can suffice.
The woodcock moves from the forest to openings for its early spring territorial display. These singing grounds are often covered with plants characteristic of abandoned fields, including blueberry, goldenrod and Red Osier dogwood.
In early spring, the male performs a courtship ritual unlike any in the avian world. In the evening or early morning, he will fly from his roost in a clearing 300 feet straight up into the air, wings fluttering. Then, chirping, he drops straight down to the spot he left, where he then sits, uttering an occasional buzzing "peent".
After a few minutes he repeats the performance. This elaborate display is often done in low light, making it an effective way for the Woodcock to attract a mate, yet avoid predators.
The American Woodcock is a migratory species. It is distributed throughout northeastern North America during the breeding season and the summer, but retreats to the southeastern United States (principally Louisiana and east Texas) for the winter. The woodcock arrives in Vermont as early as March. The male usually arrives first to establish its territory, but the female soon follows. Abandoned fields or forest openings are utilized by the male for his annual courtship flight.
Following the courtship ritual by the male, the female selects a mate. The female may, or may not, nest near the singing grounds. Her nest is a shallow depression in the ground among dead leaves, where the bird's coloring provides excellent camouflage. Nesting takes place in April, sometimes even before the last snowfall, through early May.
The female lays four brown spotted buff colored eggs, which are incubated for 21 days. The chicks hatch in late May through early June. The young are well developed at birth, and leave the nest within one day of hatching. They mature rapidly and are indistinguishable in the field from adults at four weeks of age.
The chicks remain with their mothers for one month but, when capable of flight, leave the family unit. The male does not participate in any of the brood rearing activities.
The woodcock is crepuscular (active early and late in the day) throughout the year, typically walking or flying from cover to open fields at dusk to roost in the evening, and feeding in the forests during the day. When autumn weather becomes cold enough to freeze the soil, making it impossible for the woodcock to probe for earthworms, it will begin to migrate to the wintering grounds. In Vermont, they are usually gone by the end of October.
Earthworms are the woodcock's most important food source and can make up as much as 95% of its diet. The worms are extracted with its long, narrow bill; the tip of the upper mandible is flexible so that it can grasp a worm while probing in the mud, without opening its bill. Insect larvae, such as larvae of flies and ground beetles, are also eaten, as well as the occasional piece of vegetable matter.
The woodcock needs to consume a great deal of food every day, so it spends a considerable amount of time feeding. Studies have shown that a single woodcock can eat up to 90% of its body weight in a 24-hour period.
The woodcock population has steadily declined from its peak a century ago. Abandoned farmland in the northeast provided large amounts of the woodcock's required habitat, but now, through natural plant succession, the drainage of forested wetlands, and human development, these necessary habitats are disappearing.
Seventy percent of the landscape in the northeast, the woodcocks' primary breeding area, is now forested with much of it in later successional stages than that which is required of the woodcock. As woodcock are unable to readily adapt to changes in their environment, they are forced to use less than suitable areas, which reduces their chances of survival.
Woodcock respond well to management efforts, as scientists in Maine have discovered. In the early 1980s, at Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge, biologists started making small batches of cleared forests to study what effect this might have on the woodcock population. In six years, woodcock numbers more than doubled.
Individual homeowners can help strengthened the woodcock population by creating more suitable habitat and can than enjoy the company of woodcocks in their own back yard. woodcock do not travel great distances to meet their daily needs. An individual homeowner can easily manage local woodcock habitat because the home range is relatively small, about 25 acres.
Alder and dogwood, the tree species that provide optimal cover, are relatively short lived. They lose much of their value for woodcock after 20 years of age. To renew this cover, 25% of the feeding areas should be clear-cut in patterns of narrow strips (60 feet) or in small patches (1/4 acre) every five years.
Once cut, the alder and dogwood roots will sprout and grow into new cover for woodcock use. Young aspen trees also provide good woodcock habitat.
About 20% of the area managed for woodcock should be kept open for roosting and courtship. Open areas within one half mile of the feeding areas will receive the greatest use. They are best maintained by mowing or brush hogging every three to five years. Controlled burning and pasturing are also effective, but do not control undesirable vegetation as well as mowing does. Small forest openings can be created and maintained for singing grounds by logging if they do not already exist, but the birds prefer abandoned fields.
When the American Woodcock was more abundant, migrating flocks could number several thousand individuals. However, the woodcock population has been declining over the last three decades, primarily due to loss of suitable habitat.
As their habitat requirements are specific, finding an area that meets both their feeding and breeding needs can be difficult. Studies in Vermont, focusing on two different populations, have observed dwindling populations since the 1970s. In the eastern population a two-and a-half percent decrease per year has been recorded and in the central population, an approximate one-and a-hal percent decline has been observed.