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Wild Thing: Bird of Many Aliases

Big-eye, bogsucker or timberdoodle? Woodcocks answer to all.

By Tucker Slack

When I was a boy, almost everyone had a carefully selected nickname that highlighted his or her most remarkable traits. The reasoning behind the nickname selection process was complicated and mysterious, much like young boys. Regardless of the name or how it was derived, the slightest hint of disapproval instantly cemented the nickname to that person for life, or at least until junior high, where the process would start anew. One nickname was sufficient; I don’t recall anyone ever having (or needing) multiple nicknames.

This is not the case for the American woodcock (Scolopax minor). The list of commonly used names includes: timberdoodle, bog snipe, brush snipe, Labrador twister, night partridge, big-eye and bogsucker, to name a few. These distinct names affirm the woodcock’s originality and accurately describe its appearance and behavior. Also, different regions pass down different names. No matter what you call this intriguing bird, it’s definitely in a league all its own.

Woodcock

American woodcock.

Scientists place the American woodcock in the family Scolopacidae, which includes more than 80 species of shorebirds distributed around the globe. However, despite what its name implies, the woodcock doesn’t spend its days basking on the beach. Woodcocks inhabit moist woodlands in the eastern half of Texas, mainly as winter residents. Each spring, these migrants return north.

A timberdoodle’s camouflaging plum­age is second to none, as it allows these birds to all but disappear in the leaf litter of the forest floor. It was once heavily hunted throughout East Texas, but most encounters are now incidental. Wood-cocks usually walk on the ground undetected but will flush if pressured.

Overall, a woodcock is slightly larger than a northern bobwhite. Sexes are similar in appearance, but females are slightly larger and heavier. These husky birds have large eyes that are set well back on the sides of their head, enabling them to detect danger from any direction. Their nostrils are positioned high on their long, thin bills, which allows them to breathe while probing the soft earth for sustenance. Their ears are located in front of their eyes, and their brain arrangement is also unique among birds.

Woodcocks are outfitted with specialized feeding equipment — an upper bill with a tip that can be opened and shut while underground, and a long, rough tongue used to apprehend earthworms, which make up about two-thirds of their diet. Their remaining nourishment comes in the form of insects, arachnids, invertebrates and small seeds. Wood-cocks have voracious appetites; an adult can consume more than its own weight in food each day.

One of the most exceptional behaviors is the male’s elaborate courtship display, which takes place near dusk and dawn January through March, when the lighting is just right for romance.

This bird’s peculiar appearance and interesting behavior have gained notice among bird enthusiasts and nature lovers and helped to secure its well-deserved catalog of colorful nicknames.

 


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