Bird Watcher's General Store

Woodcock Families Hang Out Together
05/23/08


Dear Bird Folks,

Recently, I read that woodcocks are never found in flocks. Yet, when I was kid, I clearly remember finding a group of several woodcocks in the woods behind my house. When I stepped off the trail, woodcocks went running everywhere. I know there are exceptions, but this very well known bird expert stated that it "never" happens. Since I don't know how to write to him, I'm asking you for an explanation.

- Joel, Hartford, CT

Come on, Joel,

I have enough pressure on me right now. The price of birdseed is going through the roof. Gray squirrels are beating nearly every squirrel-proof feeder on the market. My phone won't stop ringing about woodpeckers eating people's houses or cardinals flying at their windows. Worst of all, my employees just found out that I'm supposed to be paying them in money, instead of blocks of suet. And now I have to defend some guy, who wrote something that doesn't match up with an experience you had when you were a child. Why me? Okay, fine. I'll do it because I like you. Well, that, and because yours is the only question I've received all week that doesn't have to do with cardinals, woodpeckers or the price of birdseed.

Actually, the main reason why I'm answering your question, Joel, is because just the other day I too ran into a bunch woodcocks and I'm just itching to talk about it. Last Tuesday afternoon, as I walked on a quiet trail through the beautiful Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, a woodcock strolled right across the path in front of me. Before I could lift my binoculars, another one walked out, then another and yet another. In front of me were four woodcocks. I was thrilled, but this was not a flock. Why not, you ask? Well, as usual, you'll have to wait until the end of the column to find out the answer. Of course you could skip ahead, but if you do, you'll miss the part where I talk about the woodcocks eating worms. You'd hate yourself if you missed that.

For those of you who don't know, woodcocks are real freaks in the world of birds. They are shorebirds, yet they don't go near the shore. They are long-distance migrants, yet they aren't very good flyers. In fact, they have the distinction of being the world's slowest flying bird. Their bulging eyes are set so far back in their head that they can actually see behind themselves. The beak on this bird is so long, when compared to its stubby little body, that it looks like a cross between a dinner roll and a baked potato with a handle. And when it comes to breeding, they have to wait until it gets dark. Apparently, woodcocks are so strange-looking that even they don't like seeing each other, especially when mating.

Yes, woodcocks really are shorebirds, but you won't find them eating on mudflats or getting heatstroke at the beach with flocks of tourists and other shorebirds. They typically spend their day alone (yup, alone), hiding in moist woodlands, acting more like Hobbits than shorebirds. When night falls the birds venture out of their hiding spots and head for the nearest field or pasture, where they use their ridiculously long beaks to dig into the soil for food. When looking for a meal the woodcock's food of choice are earthworms, earthworms and more earthworms. The woodcock eats so many worms that it makes the robin look like a vegetarian. And as if the woodcock wasn't weird enough, the tip of its beak is flexible and not stiff like most other birds. The bird uses this flexible tip like a pair tweezers to snag worms that are in deep and hard-to-reach places. Finally, here's one last fact about the woodcock's beak that I know many of you can't live without. The beak of the female is significantly longer than that of the male, which doesn't sound like a big deal to us, but it has always been a major source of embarrassment for the males.

Now back to the flock talk. The book was right; woodcocks are loners. They live, sleep, and eat all alone. They have no use for other woodcocks or other birds of any kind. The woodcocks you saw when you were a kid, and the ones I saw last week, weren't a flock, they were a family. Juvenile woodcocks, which look much like their parents, travel with the mother until they are able to fly and find food on their own. The line in your question saying, "woodcocks went running everywhere," is a clue that they were young birds that weren't yet ready to fly. Adult woodcocks spring into the air if you get too close to them. They don't go running off.

I wouldn't get too hung-up on technicalities, Joel. Whether it's a flock or a family group isn't all that important. Just getting a glimpse of these hard-to-find birds is a treat no matter what we call them. There are more important things to worry about, like having to pay my employees money instead of suet blocks. Man, that hurts. But at least I don't have to pay them in birdseed. I could never afford to do that.



Artwork by Catherine Clark


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