Coming from a non-sporting background I’ve learned a great deal about sporting topics since I joined NSLM three years ago. One of my favorite discoveries is an American game bird, Scolopax minor, or the American Woodcock. This bizarre bird also goes by a large number of colloquial names such as the Timberdoodle, the Whistledoodle, the Labrador twister, the Bogsucker, the Mudsnipe, and the Hokumpoke, just to name a few.
The timberdoodle is a small bird with a well-camouflaged chunky body, a short neck and tail, and a very long, narrow, bill that ends in a prehensile tip. This mobile tip allows it to find and grasp earthworms, the woodcock’s preferred food, as it probes underground with its bill. The ears are positioned ahead of its eyes, between the eye socket and the base of its bill. Its large eyes are located high and far back on its head giving it one of the broadest fields of vision of any vertebrate. In order to provide space for this configuration, the woodcock’s brain is essentially upside down. Its cerebellum is found under the rest of the brain, just above its spine, rather than in the usual position in the rear of the brain case. No other bird sports this configuration.
Besides being odd looking the timberdoodle is also oddly behaved. They have a very distinctive walk that resembles the inverse of a pigeon’s. They step forward heavily with the front foot and rock their body back and forth while keeping their head still. It is speculated that this disturbs worms in the ground allowing the woodcock to target them. Regardless of function it is quite entertaining to watch. Their vocalizations are also unusual. The most common sound is described as a “peent,” and more closely resembles the call of an insect than of a bird.
Woodcocks eat their weight daily in earthworms and other invertebrates. This diet requires moist ground and woodcock cover usually consists of young, dense forest with plenty of damp, brambly, and brushy areas. They drink a lot of water and rather than tilting the head back in the fashion of other birds, the timberdoodle uses its bill like a straw and sucks up a drink.
The range of the American woodcock covers the eastern half of North America from southern Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. They breed in the north and migrate south for the winter. They are crepuscular, active at dawn and dusk, and migrate by night.
In breeding season males sing and perform aerial displays to attract females. Females brood and raise the chicks, usually four, alone. Her nest is a simple hollow on the ground.
After 21 days of brooding the eggs split longitudinally and chicks, which are able to travel within just a few hours, emerge. The chicks are born with nearly adult sized feet and their bills start out at 15 mm and grow 2 mm a day. They will begin probing for worms after two days, are nearly full grown and flying in less than a month, and the family breaks up at 6 to 8 weeks.
The enemies of the woodcock include domestic dogs and cats, foxes, and various raptors. Their eggs are sought after by opossums, raccoons, skunks, and snakes. In order to lure a predator away from her nest, the hen will create a distraction by faking a broken wing some distance from the nest and then breaking into flight at the last second as the predator attacks. There have also been rare but persistent reports of woodcock hens flying out of harms way with their chicks clutched between their thighs. Most modern authorities are skeptical of this behavior but the tales of witnesses continue to come in.
The American woodcock is a game bird whose hunting is regulated to a short period of time and a low bag limit. The hunting can be challenging due not only to the woodcock’s preferred environment but also to its sometimes stubborn refusal to flush from cover. One author I read said that he had to practically kick the bird out of cover. Due to this predisposition to freeze in place and to it’s excellent camouflage, it is best to use a good bird dog, a pointer, retriever, or setter, to flush the birds from their cover.
Finding them is not the only challenge. Once flushed, they burst from practically underfoot in heavy cover and then fly rather erratically, zigging and zagging or suddenly dropping back to the earth. Getting a good shot off is not easy. If a hunter manages to bag a woodcock or two the birds make a dinner that is either adored or hated, there is no middle ground. They are said to have a liver-like flavor.
The Library has numerous books about woodcocks and woodcock hunting. In addition, the woodcock has been featured frequently in sporting art. In fact, the Library’s annual auction this year (May 29-June 5) has two woodcock etchings. The first is by Roland Clark (1943)…
and the second is by William Schaldach (1940).
For more information about this unusual bird drop by the Library and I’d be pleased to share our books about the Timberdoodle with you. Or read more about them at the various sites I’ve linked to in this week’s blog.
Erica Libhart has served as the Mars Technical Services Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2016. The focus of her position is collection services, working to increase accessibility to NSLM’s collection of books, periodicals, and archival materials. The NSLM collections span over 350 years of the history of equestrian sport, as well as fly fishing, wing shooting, and other field sports. Have a question? Contact Erica by e-mail