Frost has left the soil and earth worms are again near the surface. That makes robins happy, but they’re not the only ones that feast on worms. Robins eat a lot of things in addition to worms, but there’s another Iowa nesting bird that depends on earthworms for almost all of its food. This little robin-sized bird is strange in many ways. It’s a shore bird related to sand pipers and snipes that doesn’t live on or even near the shore. It’s actually a resident of young, brushy woodlands and damp thickets with occasional clearings. If the woodland has big old trees and isn’t very dense, you’re not likely to find one of these. They’re silent most of the time and their brown, streaked coloration makes them very hard to see amid the old leaves on the forest floor. Their large eyes are mounted high on their large heads and far back from a long bill. They have almost 360 degree vision! Big eyes are a clue that the bird is crepuscular or nocturnal, most active between dusk and dawn when low light makes them even harder to see. The ears, though invisible under feathers, are below the eyes instead of behind them like most birds. Most people, even birders, have never seen one these and many have never even heard of it.
This little stranger is known as the American woodcock in most bird books, but has quite a few nicknames. Perhaps the most common of these, at least in our area, is “timber doodle.” It’s a name they earned by a doodling or twittering sound made by air passing through the three outer primary feathers on each wing when they fly. Their flight is just as odd as their habits. They seem to levitate with their body remaining horizontal as they ascend through the brush on fluttering wings. They also seem to wobble and bob along. A batter who has faced a knuckle-ball pitcher would recognize the same disconcerting difficulty in predicting where the ball or bird will be in the next split second. Woodcocks are considered game birds, and many a hunter has found that what appears to be an easy shot at the slow flying bird is anything but easy. A quick point of the old scatter gun with an open choke, throwing a wide pattern of light shot, is called for. There’s no use in using a tighter choke for longer shots because the bird is usually out of sight in the fall leaves and brush a second or two after it flushes.
The woodcock’s worm eating is facilitated by a bill as unusual as the rest of the bird. It’s fairly narrow and longer than the bird’s already large appearing head. The weird part is that the tip of the bill is flexible. It can be opened and closed while the rest of the bill remains closed. The bird pokes along over moist soil where worms are likely to reside. It sometimes appears to stamp its feet, a habit that may cause nearby worms to move. The movement may create slight sounds or vibrations that those low slung, down-focused ears can pick up. The long bill is thrust into the soil where that flexible tip can open enough to grab a worm that is then pulled out and eaten. They’ll occasionally grab a bug or other invertebrate from the surface, but worms are their favorite food.
The female woodcock nests in the open on the ground, depending on her effective camouflage to keep her hidden. The babies are precocious, able to run and feed themselves soon after hatching. Mom tends them for a few weeks, but they’re on their own in less than two months. Woodcocks remain solitary most of their lives, even during their migration to the southern U.S., but they sometimes group together where habitat conditions are ideal.
There is one spectacular aspect to Woodcocks, and that’s the dusk and dawn courtship flights performed by the males at this time of year. The little male will spiral and wobble his way high above the trees on his twittering wings. He’ll slowly repeat a low, nasal “peant” call. He’ll flutter back to the same spot he started while uttering a bubbling sort of song. While on the ground he’ll pop up and fan his short, brown-topped tail to reveal the striking under side that’s jet black with silvery white tips. In a few minutes he’ll spiral for the skies again. You might catch one of these flights on the far west side of McFarland Park near the old spring where it’s damp. If you do, you’ll be among a quite small group of lucky birders who have ever seen and heard it.
Steve Lekwa is a former director of Story County Conservation.