A herald of spring: The ‘Peent’ call of the woodcock
Aheralder of the spring season in Northwest Connecticut—the unmistakable “Peent!” call of the male American Woodcock (Scolopax minor)— can be heard in the right habitats at dusk.
Fields, bogs, and forest clearings facilitate the dramatic performance of the species’ display for females, including a fantastic aerial display that is most effectively observed in the open.
But while males may be visible and audible on their singing grounds during the springtime, the species overall faces challenges in Connecticut finding suitable habitat during its various life stages.
After mating, the female woodcock seeks early emergent hardwood forests that provide dense cover for her and her brood; young stands of beech, birch, maple, and oak species that preferably abut singing grounds. This protects the female by reducing her risk of predation during travel.
Once her brood matures and disperses, adult birds move to more mature forest stands that have a clearer understory and moderately open canopy. Without the obstructed view of excess vegetation, they’re better able to detect predators such as fox, coyote, bobcat, and raccoon.
The woodcock’s eyes are unusually placed toward the top of their heads, giving them a 360-degree view, which increases alertness while probing the soil for earthworms. A dense canopy reduces the birds’ risk of being seen by Cooper’s and Red-shouldered Hawks flying above.
As Connecticut’s forests have aged at a similar pace in a post-industrial age, the resulting mature forests are only useful to woodcock at one stage in their short lives. Missing are the young forest stands that females rely on to provide cover during a time of exceptional vulnerability. Females make no more than a scrape on the forest floor for their nest, spending 20-22 days incubating 1-5 eggs and heavily relying on their extraordinary camouflage to conceal them.
Because this habitat is unavailable or distant from male singing grounds, Connecticut has experienced declining populations of woodcock during the past half century, according to research published by The Woodcock Management Plan.
Woodcock is one of Connecticut’s “birder’s dozen”, meaning it’s one of twelve species prioritized for conservation through Audubon Connecticut. With approximately 73% of Connecticut’s forests privately owned, landowners have an opportunity to manage parts of their forest for woodcock to make a comeback.
Audubon Connecticut’s Forest for Birds habitat assessment program allows landowners in eastern Connecticut to receive habitat enhancement recommendations from both a licensed forester and a Sharon Audubon staff member.
A 2019 Audubon report, Survival by Degrees, compiled 140 million observations to create models for 604 North American bird species. The report found that two-thirds of those species are at risk of extinction due to rising temperatures. For the woodcock, rising temperatures could likely increase both the frequency and intensity of forest fires that disrupt nesting and destroy valuable habitat. Additionally, heavy rainfall and flooding could destroy nests and prevent females from feeding their chicks.
For more information on managing land for woodcock and to learn about how to advocate for protection of this remarkable bird visit ctaudubon.org.
Bethany Sheffer is Volunteer Coordinator and Naturalist at the Sharon Audubon Center.