A Timberdoodle may sound more like one of Santa’s Christmas Elves, but it’s actually one of many nicknames for a unique looking bird called an American Woodcock.  Although not a common admission to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, we recently had a Timberdoodle delivered to our care because the chunky little bird suffered head trauma, but we’re not sure how it happened.  The American Woodcock, a member of the Sandpiper family, is a stout shorebird with a plump body, short legs, a large round head and a long, straight prehensile bill.  Adults are 10 to 12 inches in length and weigh 5 to 8 ounces, with females considerably larger than males. They have very short tails which gives them a bulbous look on the ground and in flight.  Their wings are broad and rounded compared to other shorebirds.  The American Woodcock, although it is indeed a shorebird, lives in and around young forests rather than along bodies of water.   They camouflage well in  wooded environments because their color pattern is a mix of brown, black, buff and gray, so they spend most of their time hidden in fields and on the forest floor. Their underparts are buff to a tinge of dark orange.  Their brownish gray to reddish brown feet and toes are small and not considered strong body parts.  What is strong is their long bill that is used to probe the soil to find their favorite food, earthworms.  This prehensile, 2 ½ to almost 3 inches, bill not only pokes into the earth, but an amazing bone and muscle collaboration allows the bird to open and close the tip of its bill while the bill is underground. The underside of the bill and the American Woodcock’s tongue are both rough-surfaced enough to grasp slick and slimy prey such as a juicy worm or other invertebrates. Delectable items in the Timberdoodle’s diet also include insect larvae, snails, centipedes, millipedes, spiders, snipe flies, beetles and ants. To initiate the hunt for worms or insects, they stomp their bony feet on the ground to startle the prey into movement the bird can detect before penetrating the ground with their bill in efforts to capture whatever is on the run.  They also eat a small amount of plants, mainly seeds and are most food active at dawn and dusk. The Woodcock’s eyes are large and located high in their head.  Although they don’t rely on their eyes to hunt, their immediate visual field is said to be the largest of any bird; 360 degrees horizontally and 180 degrees vertically.  American Woodcocks are usually found much further north, to include Canada, rather than the southern Outer Banks of North Carolina, but they do migrate as far south as the Gulf Coast States before the harshness of a northern winter. The highest concentrations of Night Partridges (another of the many nicknames for the American Woodcock), after winter migration, according to the annual ‘Christmas Bird Count,’ are found in northern Alabama.  Although, they are occasionally sighted, even during Spring breeding season, in the western mountainous areas of North Carolina. The American Woodcock is the only species of woodcock that inhabits North America.  Woodcocks migrate at night and fly at low altitudes in small, loose flocks.  Their flight speed has been clocked at 16 to 28 mph, however, Timberdoodles are also known to fly at the slowest speed ever recorded for a bird, 5 mph!  Both October and late February migrations, where they visually follow coastlines and river valleys, are viewed as leisurely for American Woodcocks compared to the rapid and more direct migrations of most other birds. During breeding season, the male Woodcock sings a series of ground calls and performs high spiraling, zigzagging and banking flights at dawn, dusk and on moonlit nights while attempting to woo a mate (or many mates). They will also bob and bow while walking very stiff-legged with wings outstretched toward a female on the ground.  After a Woodcock hen is impressed by all that showy display and chooses her fella, she uses leaves and twigs to encircle a shallow depression on the ground to make a comfy home for her one to four eggs.  Incubation takes 20 to 22 days. Hatchlings are precocial, which means they are ready to leave the nest within a few hours of birth much like chickens, but Mom will feed them and teach them to hunt. The young will be probing for worms within a few days of hatching. It’s fortunate that, although fluffy, the young are born with their well-camouflaged coloring enabling them to blend into their surroundings, which becomes essential when predators, such as raccoons, raptors or humans, make the scene. Some observers state they have witnessed frightened youngsters clinging to their Mother’s body as she flies them away from danger.  Young Bogsuckers (yet another nickname for American Woodcocks) will make short flights within two weeks of birth, can demonstrate excellent aerial maneuvers at three weeks and are ready to move on independently after five weeks of Momma’s care. The male is not monogamous and will mate with numerous females.  Male American Woodcocks do not help to select a nest site, incubate eggs or feed and rear the young.  However, the male will continue to entertain the female with his dazzling courtship rituals for as long as four months beyond hatch day.  This chunky and most interesting shorebird suffers loss of habitat due to forest maturation and urban development, but the American Woodcock does adapt better in deforestation situations than other ground dwelling birds do.  Strides in conservation efforts since the 1960’s, especially the “American Woodcock Conservation Plan” which protects, renews and creates habitat, have helped maintain Hokumpoke or Brush Snipe (still other nicknames!) populations in North America so they haven’t moved onto the wildlife endangered list, but are considered within “species of greatest conservation need.” Groups care so much about the Timberdoodle that as recently as October 2017, the 11th American Woodcock Symposium was held in Michigan and focused on steadfastly maintaining this bird. It’s nice to know that probably due to their efforts, the estimated population of the American Woodcock is 5 million, so it does rank as the most common Sandpiper on the continent of North America, and it’s also nice to know that people are so impressed when they see an American Woodcock that they immediately come up with a nickname for this little, fat body bird with the very long, skinny bill that looks so unusual and out of place.  The maximum lifespan of a Timberdoodle in the wild has been recorded at eight years, so they are out there! If you are scouting for one, look for them in young forests, forest edges, old farming fields and wet meadows, AND look low!  The are definitely worth seeing!

Merry Christmas,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All