Thursday, July 18, 2024

A dazed woodcock rests after hitting a glassed building in Birmingham, Alabama, on Nov, 9, 2016. (Photo: Daniel Hessler)

The American woodcock (Scolopax minor), also known as a timberdoodle, Labrador twister, night partridge, bogsucker, fiddle squeak, swamp bat, or mudsnipe, migrates north to our area earlier than most other spring birds. In fact, birders spotted the first woodcocks in Massachusetts in February this year – though woodcocks fly at night from the south to their northern breeding sites, and because these wet woodland birds are nocturnal, they are often unseen.

In the spring, these birds may become less elusive. Their mating dance is striking and unusual and takes place at dusk. During the male’s “sky dance,” he ascends in a spiral 200 to 300 feet in the air, loudly calling a buzzy peent to females nearby. Last year, some lucky observers witnessed this dance firsthand near the Alewife red line station.

A woodcock visits the Growing Center in Somerville on March 7, 2021. (Photo: Claire O’Neill, Earthwise Aware)

Woodcocks are robin-sized game birds (about the weight of an avocado) with a long bill, a mottled brownish body and large eyes set far back on the head. Its ears are beneath its eyes. Woodcocks use their long bill to probe for earthworms, which make up about 60 percent of their diet. They bob as they walk, which some think agitates worms and insects in the soil. These birds also eat other soil-dwelling critters, such as ants, flies, beetles, crickets, caterpillars, grasshoppers and spiders. Because they poke about in the soil and consume their weight in earthworms each day, woodcocks can accumulate pesticides and heavy metals, such as lead, in their bodies.

Because of its eye placement, the American Woodcock, like this one on the Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge in Maine, can watch for danger from the sky while it probes the ground. (Photo: Keith Ramos/USFWS)

Woodcocks were once hunted heavily in our area. It seemed everyone, even the chief of police, was in on the action according to the Cambridge Chronicle in 1905:

Fred B. Pullen … chief of police. . . resumed work on Monday morning after nearly a fortnight spent at his favorite sport, woodcock shooting. Accompanied by his son and his dog, he headed for Orange, Mass., … Here the chief and his son averaged some three or four birds a day … In old times, woodcock could always be scared up near Weston or Lincoln, while today it is necessary to go out considerably farther in order to find any. 

A red-tailed hawk in Kendall Square devours a woodcock killed after hitting a window on Binney Street in Cambridge on April 19, 2022. (Photo: Brian Rusnica)

Around the turn of the past century, hunters with shotguns boarded trains to their favorite woodcock hunting grounds. One such hunter was the sporting editor of the Cambridge Chronicle in October 1908: 

I put on my hunting togs last Saturday for a quiet day in the woods … I got off the train at South Bolton … “Over there,” said [the station agent], pointing to the north, “is where the hunters usually go.” … The robins were thick, I confess, and the barberry bushes hung full of the ruby red fruit … I soon came upon another hunter … “About the only likely place around here that I have not hunted this morning is over there,” said the man, pointing to some woods in the distance, “and I would like to go through those woods with you,” he volunteered. Accepting his offer, we were soon treading leaves, which were so dry that the noise we made was enough to scare all the birds in town, if there had been any there to scare … We came to the road that led to the depot and the electric cars …  I took an electric for Hudson centre … From Hudson I took the steam train for home. At nearly every station above Waltham a stray hunter or two would get in, but I did not detect much enthusiasm in their conversation or notice any bulging of pockets in their game coats … As the train passed along through the Fresh pond and North Cambridge meadows, I noticed the dry, tall grass all afire and the smouldering peat sending out its murky smoke, which explained to some extent at least the reason for the stifling atmosphere which has lately prevailed about here. I arrived home before dusk, feeling that my trip had been a dismal failure as a hunting expedition. 

A woodcock in Somerville on Oct. 26, 2021. (Photo: Jennifer Clifford)

Woodcocks were abundant in Maine and Nova Scotia long after they were rare to find in Cambridge, as detailed in a Cambridge Chronicle article about Roy A. Faye, manager of the Harvard Automobile company, who once drove 253 miles from New York to Boston in only nine hours: 

In a uniquely constructed palace car automobile, equipped with sleeping quarters and ample storage room for supplies of all kinds, three well known sportsmen of this vicinity started from Cambridge, last Saturday evening, on a 15-day hunting and camping tour through New Hampshire and Maine … The automobile in which the three will travel and camp is a 16-horse-power Rambler car, upon which Messrs. Young and Faye have built a strong frame of wood, braced with steel rods. . . Hung from the frame, about three feet below the roof, is a 4×6 foot spring bed, with a hair mattress and full equipment of blankets … 

It is the intention of the party to run night and day, one managing the machine while the other two sleep, and, according to Mr. Young’s testimony, “the bed is as easy as that of a Pullman sleeper, except when you strike a rock.” … While the weight of the car is a little more than that of the regular body, no difficulty is anticipated in maintaining the speed of the car, if the tires withstand the extra strain … 

Woodcock is the game which will be sought for, and with the two dogs, these three gentlemen, who are crack shots and of high rating in the Middlesex Sportsman’s club, expect to bag many birds.

Woodcocks nest on the ground. After these four eggs hatched, the young were gone within two hours. (Photo: Lee Thomas)

Woodcock hunting was so popular that hunters bred a special dog to retrieve their kills: the cocker spaniel. (In case the origin of the name “cocker” hadn’t occurred to you.) In the 1970s, hunters killed 1.5 million woodcock per year. By 2020, that number had declined to 170,000 per year. Today throughout Massachusetts, hunters and archers hunt woodcock during its hunting season from early October through late November. Despite this pressure, these elusive little birds have managed to survive. Luckily, most people these days hunt woodcock only with binoculars and cameras.


Seen nearby

Cynthia Bloomquist spotted this Townshend’s warbler on Martha’s Vineyard on Nov. 5.


Have you taken photos of our urban wild things? Send your images to Cambridge Day, and we may use them as part of a future feature. Include the photographer’s name, date and the general location where the photo was taken as well as any other relevant information.

Jeanine Farley is an educational writer who has lived in the Boston area for more than 30 years. She enjoys taking photos of our urban wild things.