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Baby Woodcocks

Dear Bird Folks,

Please take a look at the photo on my phone and tell me what birds these are. They appear to be a mother bird with babies and I found them huddled under some vegetation along the side of my driveway.

– Bill, Eastham, MA


Those are woodcocks, Bill,

The birds in your photo are American Woodcocks, and also, where do you live? Here’s the backstory. It was late in the day last Saturday and I was in the basement (at work) putting away a shipment of birdfeeders, when I heard Rocky (a staff member), excitedly yelling for me. Rocky gets excited about everything, but especially when it’s about birds, and even more especially when it’s about baby birds. She told me to come upstairs because a guy had a photo of a woodcock family. I immediately dropped the feeders and ran up the stairs. Don’t ask me why I felt the need to run. It’s not like the guy was doubled parked or the photo was going to expire, but I must have gotten caught up in the baby bird excitement. The guy (Bill) indeed had photos of an adult woodcock with at least two babies. Bill explained that the birds had been next to his driveway all afternoon and that we were welcomed to go and see them. He gave me his address and said I should park behind the black Kia in the driveway. Bill continued telling Rocky how he discovered the birds, but I didn’t hear any of it. I was already on my way.

I found Bill’s house and the black Kia with zero trouble, but the woodcocks were a different story. I walked the edge of the wooded area several times and saw nothing but plants and dead leaves. When Bill arrived (I had beaten him to his own house), I told him that the only thing I found so far was the black Kia. He called me over and while pointing to a spot under some bushes he said, “There’s a baby right there.” After much squinting and further guidance from Bill, I finally saw a tiny woodcock hunched down in the leaf litter. The little bird’s natural camouflage fit so perfectly into the surroundings that the second I turned away to say something, I lost it again. Bill kindly pointed it out one more time, while likely wondering which of us was the actual bird watcher.

Here’s a question: What do female Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and female woodcocks have in common? In addition to being birds, they are both hardworking single mothers. Since late February, the male woodcocks have been performing their elaborate evening and early morning courtship displays. Just after dark or before sunrise, each male will suddenly begin making a raspy “peent” call. After about a dozen or so of these odd calls, the male will take to the sky, making twittering sounds as he goes. (These are the good kind of twitter sounds and should not be confused with the annoying clatter of electronic Twitter.) Once in the air, he will circle and chirp high up above the ground for about a minute, before eventually settling back to earth, where he will start peenting all over again. If a nearby female somehow likes his “sky dance,” she will briefly mate with him before going off to build a nest all by herself. Without giving her a second thought, the male will go right back to dancing and will have nothing to do with his coming family, kind of like the fathers you might see on Maury.

Ms. Woodcock creates a nest on the ground, often building it in the woods or an overgrown field. She’ll line the nest with dead leaves, before laying four eggs. For the next three weeks she’ll spend 90% of her day sitting motionless, incubating and hoping a passing predator won’t discover her. When hatching day arrives, the chicks will chip their way out of the cramped shells, while being encouraged by mom’s soft clucks. Like the baby Wild Turkeys we talked about two weeks ago, young woodcocks are ready to leave their nest within a few hours after hatching. For the first week or so, mom will provide her kids with yummy worms, millipedes and other such squiggly creatures. But soon the little woodcocks will learn to find their own meals by probing the soil with their ridiculously long beaks. Speaking of beaks:

Woodcocks forage by jamming their beaks deep into the ground. Sensitive nerves on the tip allow them to detect worms they can’t see, but can feel. The beak also has a special bone and muscle arrangement, which lets the bird open the tip, and only the tip, allowing it to grab worms while the rest of the beak remains closed tight, thus preventing the woodcock from getting a mouthful of mud. And speaking of eyes: (Actually I wasn’t, but I needed a transition.) Owls have the ability to turn their heads 270 degrees, which is impressive, especially since I can no longer look to my left or right without turning my chair first. But the woodcock can do something even better than owls can. Its huge eyes are situated in the skull in such a way that it can actually see 360 degrees without ever moving its head…or its chair.

Thanks for sharing your woodcock family, Bill. Those cute little babies will likely continue to huddle someplace in your yard for another week or so. But once they reach the ripe old age of eight weeks, they will leave their mother, each other, and your yard, and strike out on their own. With any luck though, the mom will be back next spring with a brand new family. In the meantime, if you take any more photos of mystery baby birds, just let me know and I’ll come running…literally.