I was out exercising my young golden this weekend. She likes to run around. so I do give her some of her own time to do run around like a wild animal. She’s only 13 months old, and she’s still very much a puppy. I noticed that she was no longer following me as closely as I thought she was, so I stopped on the edge of the trail to call her.
As I turned to call her, a clump of leaves no more than three feet from me got up and trotted away. The clump stopped about ten feet from me, and it was then I could get a good look at it.
The clump was a small bird, about the size of a bobwhite, but bobwhites have been extirpated from most of West Virginia. Further, this bird had a long, narrow bill, the likes of which you normally see on certain species of shorebird.
I knew I was looking at an American woodcock. These birds nest in the woods where I usually walk my dogs. However, they are not year-round residents. They typically migrate south for the winter, and I normally don’t hear the bird making their buzzer-like croaks (known in a wonderful example of onomatopoeia as “peents”) until the end of March or early April.
This bird here was very early in his arrival, and I guessed that he got blown here during the bad wind storm of last week.
After watching this bird for a couple of minutes, I called the dog again, and she arrived. This would be the perfect teaching moment for her, or so I thought. Here was an animal her race had long relished flushing. In fact, I had a golden that a penchant for woodcock.
It took me nearly ten minutes to get her to run into that stretch of woods where I had last seen the woodcock. When she ran in, the woodcock took to the air, but he flew only about ten yards.
I praised the dog. It was a half-hearted attempt. I don’t think birds are really her favorite thing.
And then we continued our walk.
As we made our way back to the place where we’d last seen the woodcock, I could hear the little buzz croaks.
I hope that this woodcock got back into the warmer parts of the country. His species is a worm specialist. In this still rather cold part of the country that was hard frozen just a week ago, I doubt that he could find enough worms to feed himself. Perhaps his lack of fear of both a person and dog were the result of his weakened condition. I’ve never gotten so close to one of these birds without it flying.
The males display to the females through some complex displays. The peents are used to draw in the females, but when a female comes, the male flies into the air, traveling far out of sight. Then he drops from the sky, landing in exactly the same spot where he took off. While in the air, his wings make a whistling sound.
The birds nest all over the woodlands here. In early spring, you can hear the peents everywhere, especially at dusk. They’ve always nested here, but I’ve never seen a woodcock chick. They are like other groundbird chicks, walking and running within hours of hatching. And like their parents, they are wonderfully camouflaged.
But for the long bill, this little woodcock is very much like a bobwhite or ring-necked pheasant chick. (In my neck of the woods, you’re far more likely to see a “ditch parrot” than a pseudo-quail. The ditch parrots are stocked by landowners and hunt clubs. Pheasants also adapt far more easily to living in the wild than bobwhites, which become tamer than most chickens after just a few generations in captivity.)
If you would like to see this birds in the wild, this video can tell you the easiest way to find one:
When I was a child, I was into nature documentaries, and I had just seen a nature special about the wildlife of New Zealand. I was particularly intrigued with the famous native bird of that country, the kiwi. It lives in dense forests. It also has a long bill.
After seeing that documentary, I remember seeing a similar bird not far from my home, and I ran home to tell my parents that I’d seen a kiwi. However, I also had a nice field guide to American birds, so I made a good check of the nature guide before announcing my ornithological find of the century. Boy, was I let down to know that I’d found a mere woodcock.
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