Photo by: H. Williamson

Scolopax minor

Prior to about 1980, the scientific name of the American Woodcock was Philohela minor. The species is monotypic in North America; its closest relative is the European Woodcock, (Scolopax rusticola), which is much larger then the American species. The woodcock is a popular game bird in forested areas of the eastern United States. Except for Louisiana, hunting pressure and numbers harvested are low in southern states. In some years, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service was unable to estimate the harvest in Texas because so few wings were submitted to the Wing-collection Survey (Kelley and Rau 2006).

The species is polygamous, with the female being larger than the male. In hand, sex may be determined by inserting a dollar bill into the bird’s beak; if the beak overlaps the width of the dollar bill, the bird is a female, otherwise it is a male. Both sexes probe moist soil, primarily loamy sands and sandy loams, for earthworms, its primary food source. Numerous probe holes and white “chalk” (i.e., feces) are evidence of woodcock feeding. In Texas, woodcock feed primarily at dawn and dusk. Most birds spend daylight hours in dense thickets where they remain motionless. At dusk, woodcock move to open areas, primarily very young pine plantations, overgrown pastures, and recently burned fields, to feed, court, and roost. Most individuals return to thickets each day.

DISTRIBUTION. Biologists originally believed nesting by woodcock in the South, including Texas (Oberholser 1974), was rare. However, research in the 1980’s showed 35% of adult hens nested in the Gulf Coastal Plain (Whiting et al. 1985). The extent and rate of southern nesting is dependent on an unknown combination of climatic factors. Those factors which produce an abundant food supply in December and January seem to result in high nesting rates.

The woodcock is one of the earliest nesting species in the southern United States. Male testes recrudescence and courtship flights begin in December. By mid-January, males have established territories and are sexually mature. In the central Pineywoods, courtship activity peaks in mid-February and most males have migrated northward by early March (Whiting and Boggus 1982). Male courtship displays begin shortly after sunset and continue for about an hour. Displays resume about an hour before sunrise and are usually discontinued by sunrise. The birds may court throughout the night when it is clear and the moon is full.

In females, follicular recrudescence begins in January. However, body mass of the adult female must exceed about 210 grams before ova enter the rapid eruption stage prior to laying (Whiting and Boggus 1982). Although most nests are initiated in February, hens occasionally begin laying in January. Woodcock lay four eggs which are grayish orange with dark brown or bluish gray spots and blotches. Incubation is 20-22 days (Keppie and Whiting 1994), thus chicks may be present by late February. Chicks are precocial and can fly at 14 days.

The extent and distribution of woodcock nesting in Texas is unclear. Eggs and/or chicks are commonly recorded in the Pineywoods region. Nests or chicks have also been  recorded in  Brazos County in the Post Oak Savannah region (Davis 1961), the Gulf Prairies and Marshes region as far south as the Welder Wildlife Foundation in San Patricio County (Cain et al. 1977), and as far west as suburban Austin in the Edwards Plateau of Travis County (Mosier and Martin 1980). There was an unconfirmed report of a hen with chicks inside the city limits of Dallas.

SEASONAL OCCURRENCE. Woodcock begin arriving in eastern Texas in early to mid-October, depending on weather conditions. Hard cold fronts in November and December may push large numbers of woodcock into Texas. Climatic conditions also dictate woodcock distribution in the state. During severe winters, Christmas Bird Counts show more woodcock in the Rio Grande Valley than during mild winters. When forested areas of Texas suffer drought, woodcock disperse south and west. During the dry winter of 2005-2006, there were numerous reports of woodcock in marshes along the central coast and in lawns and flower beds in Austin, Coleman, and San Antonio. By early March, virtually all males and most non-nesting females have moved north out of the central Pineywoods. There is evidence that females, which have completed brood-rearing duties, and their young move north in the spring or summer (Causey et al. 1979). Few if any woodcock spend July and August in Texas.

BREEDING HABITAT. Male woodcock establish territories in numerous vegetation types. However, without exception, males peent and initiate their courtship flights from openings. Courtship sites are often in very young pine plantations (< 7-year-old trees) and overgrown pastures and fields. If soil conditions are correct in such habitats, numerous males will establish territories in a situation similar to a lek. Females walk or fly to the courtship fields where feeding, roosting, and mating takes place. Nests are near courtship sites and usually near very moist soil in which chicks can probe. Nests, bowl-shaped depressions in shallow mounds of leaves and twigs, are usually at the base of small trees. Although overstory and midstory vegetation at nest sites vary extensively, understory and ground cover must be open in order for chicks to move and forage.STATUS. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service uses standardized surveys of courting males to establish woodcock population trends. Observers count courting males at 10 stops along randomly established 6 km (3.6-mi) routes. Counts at the first stop begin 22 minutes after sunset. As currently conducted, all routes are adjacent to the Great Lake states, north of the Ohio River, or extend south only to Virginia. Survey data indicate a long-term (1968-2006) declining trend in woodcock numbers (Kelley and Rau 2006). However, accuracy of the survey has been questioned for many reasons (Sauer and Bortner 1991), perhaps most importantly because courtship and breeding in southern and Midwestern states is ignored (Whiting, in revision). Surveys conducted in eastern Texas during February for five years (1988-1992) recorded courting males in 23 of 25 Pineywoods counties and 10 of 25 Post Oak Savannah counties (Tappe et al. 1989, George 1992). As the survey routes were randomly selected, some were not in woodcock habitat (e.g., the Harris County route, on which no birds were recorded, was entirely in subdivisions). During wet, cold winters, courting male woodcock probably occur throughout most of the eastern half of Texas.

Text by R. Montague Whiting, Jr., and Sarah E. Richardson (2007).

Texas Breeding Bird Atlas map

Texas Breeding Bird Atlas map - Nests and/or Chicks

Texas Breeding Bird Atlas map - Male Courtship Flights

Literature cited:

Cain, B. W.,  R. J. Whyte, and P. Micks. 1977. Southern nesting record of the American Woodcock. Bull.Texas Ornithol.l Soc.11: 46.

Causey, M.K., G. I. Horton, J. C. Roboski, R.C. Johnson, and P. J. Mason. 1979. American woodcock hatched in Alabama killed in Michigan. Wilson Bull. 91: 463-464.

Davis, W. B. 1961. Woodcock nesting in Brazos County, Texas. Auk 78: 272-273.

George, R. R. 1992. Woodcock density, distribution, movement and harvest. Federal Aid Project Number W-128-R-1, Job Number 8. Texas Parks and Wildl. Dept., Austin.

Kelley, J. R., Jr., and R. D. Rau. 2006. American woodcock population status, 2006. U. S. Fish and Wildl.Serv., Laurel, MD.

Keppie, D. M., and R .M. Whiting, Jr. 1994. American Woodcock (Scolopax minor). In The Birds of North America, No. 100 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.

Mosier, D. T., and R. F. Martin. 1980. Central Texas breeding of the American woodcock. Texas J. Science 32: 94.

Oberholser, H. C. 1974. The bird life of Texas. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Sauer, J. R., and J. B. Bortner. 1991. Population trends from the American woodcock singing-ground survey, 1970-88. J. Wildl. Manage. 55: 300-312.

Tappe, P. A., R. M. Whiting, Jr., and R. R. George. 1989. Singing ground surveys for woodcock in east Texas. Wildl. Soc. Bull. 17: 36-40.

Whiting, R. M., Jr. In revision. American woodcock singing-ground surveys: do they reflect population trends? Proc. Tenth Am. Woodcock Symp., Oct 3-6, 2006, Roscommon, MI.

Whiting, R. M., Jr., and T. G. Boggus. 1982. Breeding biology of American woodcock in east Texas. In Woodcock ecology and management. pp.132-138 (T. J. Dwyer and G. L. Storm, tech. coords.) U. S. Fish Wildl Serv, Wildl. Res. Rep. 14. Washington, DC.

Whiting, R.M., Jr., R.R. George, M.K. Causey, and T.H. Roberts. 1985. February hunting of American woodcock: breeding implications. Pages 309-317 in S. L. Beasom and S. F. Roberson, editors. Game harvest management. Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute, Kingsville, TX.

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