Birds: Waders of the woodlands
Bird watchers who know the woodcock as a shy retiring woodland bird are often surprised to learn that it is a wader, closely related to shore birds such as the curlew and sandpipers. The similarity is seen most clearly in its long probing beak.
The ideal habitat for a woodcock is a deciduous wood with plenty of leaf litter. The wood needs to have some dry areas where the woodcock can nest, and some wet areas for feeding typically a patch of ground kept perpetually moist by seepage from an under-ground spring and rich in worms, the woodcock’s major food source. Besides this mixture of wet and dry ground, woodcocks require a broken canopy and preferably also open glades for their display flights.
Despite having such particular requirements, the woodcock is widespread throughout both Britain and Ireland-more so than most bird watchers would imagine, as its secretive habits often keep it from view. In the breeding season it is absent only from the extreme south-west of England, the west of Wales and the northern isles of Scotland. In the south of England it is usually found in oak woods. Further north it is more likely to be seen in birch scrub (in Scotland) and in mixed plantations of deciduous and coniferous trees.
Judging from old records, the woodcock used not to be so widely distributed. Before about 1800 it was known to breed only in parts of England. One possible reason for this expansion is thought to be the increasing amount of commercial woodland being planted. Another factor might well be the increase in pheasant shooting. The associated management of woodland for game rearing produces conditions well suited to the woodcock.
Like pheasants, the woodcock is a popular game bird and in many areas special shoots are organised during the winter.
Ringing recoveries indicate that most woodcocks breeding in this country are relatively sedentary, moving only a few miles within their neighbourhoods. Some, particularly those from Scotland and northern England, move south or south-west to avoid the winter, sometimes travelling as far as France, Spain or Portugal.
Conversely, each autumn, large numbers of woodcock arrive in Britain from parts of the Continent that have severe winters, such as Russia, Scandinavia, Germany and Holland. In these countries, the ground can freeze for long periods and prevent the woodcock from feeding.
The mottled rich brown plumage of a woodcock provides it with ideal camouflage against a background of dead leaves or bracken and makes the bird extremely difficult to spot. If you approach a woodcock it crouches down, completely immobile. Only when you come within a few feet (sometimes just a few inches) of it does it take off.
Once you do spot a woodcock, however, it is an easy bird to identify. The only other bird you are likely to confuse it with is the snipe. Like the snipe, the woodcock has a disproportionately long beak and its colouring is similar, though the snipe has pale bars on its head running from front to back, whereas on the woodcock they run from side to side. The woodcock also has much larger eyes, which it needs to help it feed and fly in the late evening. These eyes make the woodcock’s head seem larger and more angular than that of the snipe. Another difference is in the way that they fly. The snipe is a swift and nimble flier. The woodcock, on the other hand, has a much heavier appearance and a strange, jinking flight that makes it a challenging target for a marksman. This partly explains its attraction as a game bird.
The woodcock feeds by probing the wet soil for earthworms and insect larvae, though there are records of its eating seeds and other vegetable matter. To help it feed, its beak has a swollen tip containing numerous sensitive nerve endings that allow the woodcock to identify its prey.
Another adaptation allows the woodcock to avoid eating large amounts of mud with each creature. The top half of its beak is supported by long nasal bones, which are in turn attached to the skull. In most birds these bones are held rigid, but in the woodcock they are flexible. Special muscles can pull them back, allowing just the tip of the beak to open so it can grasp the worm but leave any mud behind.
Patrolling the glades
During the breeding season male woodcocks perform a strange display flight known as roding. Usually a single woodcock, but sometimes two or three, patrol a lengthy but regular circuit across the open glades of the woodland, either at dusk or at dawn. As it flies it gives out a triple croak more reminiscent of a frog, followed immediately by a whistling ‘tsiwick’. The wing-beats are very slow and owl-like, and belie the real speed of the bird.
Roding seems to be the only activity in which woodcocks are at all gregarious. For much of the year they are the most solitary of all the waders.
The breeding season begins early in March with the building of the nest. This is usually a simple affair, a hole scraped in the ground, often among leaf litter, and lined with leaves. The nests are frequently close to the base of a tree.
As with so many waders, the typical clutch size is four, occasionally three or five. The eggs have a background colour of off-white to buff, with variable brown or red-brown markings making them nearly invisible against the woodland floor.
The female alone seems to incubate the eggs. Once hatched, the chicks’ eyes are quickly open and within a few hours their camouflage-patterned down is dry enough for them to leave the nest on short forays. Although initially short-beaked they feed themselves from birth, under the watchful eye of the mother.
Do woodcocks carry their young?
From time to time over a great many years bird watchers have reported seeing a woodcock in flight carrying a young chick between its legs. Whether or not this really happens has been debated among ornithologists for more than a century without settling the question.
The proponents argue that young chicks are sometimes found wandering with their parents a considerable distance from the nest. To get them there, or take them back, they have to be carried occasionally by one of the parents. It is thought that the adult clasps the chicks between its legs, holding them in place by depressing its tail and sometimes using its beak as well.
Sceptics say that what these people are seeing is simply a distraction display flight, a practice performed by many other waders to draw predators away from the young chicks. In the case of the woodcock, the flight is laboured and clumsy, the tail is held depressed and the beak droops. These flights usually end in a crash-landing, just as if the woodcock had been carrying a heavy burden.
There are now so many sightings of this phenomenon on record that most bird watchers have come to accept that it does occur, though rarely. But until someone can photograph it happening, the question will remain open.