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American Woodcock

Scolopax minor
Overview
Minnesota Seasonal Status:

A regular breeding resident and migrant; the American Woodcock was common during the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (MNBBA).

North American Breeding Distribution and Relative Abundance:

Patchily distributed and in low abundance throughout eastern North America from the Maritime provinces in Canada to southeastern Manitoba, and south to eastern Texas. Most commonly breeding above 40 degrees N latitude in the upper midwestern and northeastern United States, and in southern Canada (Figure 1).

Conservation Concern:
Conservation Status Score 13

A hunted species; assigned a Continental Concern Score of 13/20 by the North American Bird Conservation Initiative; designated a Species in Greatest Conservation Need by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Life History
Migration:

A short-distance migrant wintering throughout the southeastern United States, along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts from New Jersey to Texas and north to Missouri and Tennessee. Southern breeding populations in the United States, such as in New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia, may be permanent residents.

Food:

Primarily consumes invertebrates, especially earthworms, which are extracted by probing into the ground or soft sediment, and occasionally seeds. Its long bill has a flexible upper mandible specialized for capturing food such as earthworms.

Nest:

On the ground in a shallow depression of leaves and litter.

American Woodcock American Woodcock. Scolopax minor
© Mike Lentz
Figure 1.

Breeding distribution and relative abundance of the American Woodcock in North America based on the federal Breeding Bird Survey, 2011-2015 (Sauer et al. 2017).

Minnesota Breeding Bird Distribution*

The American Woodcock, a plump shorebird, is a popular and challenging Minnesota game bird. It is well-known for its bizarre looks and its unique sky dances during its spring courtship rituals. Roberts (1932) devoted considerable text to the species’ courtship and distraction displays. He stated that the species was a “summer resident, breeding throughout the state, but best represented in the counties bordering the Mississippi River south of Anoka,” a city and county located just north of the Twin Cities. He reported that he had summer records throughout the entire state, except in the northeastern angle, now known as the Arrowhead region. In his 1936 edition of The Birds of Minnesota, Roberts makes special mention of one of his observers, H. F. Kendall, who reported seeing the bird “near Virginia, St. Louis County, on July 31 and August 11, 1932, suggesting that it nested there.”

Roberts noted that already in the 1930s “Woodcock has undoubtedly decreased in Minnesota, but it was never abundant enough to encourage sportsmen to make it a special object of pursuit, except perhaps, in the bottom-lands of the Mississippi River.” He mentioned that sportsmen had found particularly “wonderful shooting trips” south of Lake Pepin about 1872. No one else seems to have encountered such conditions in Minnesota.

Roberts (1932) reported only 3 records of nests with eggs, from Lake Minnetonka and Minneapolis, Hennepin County, as well as an “adult with 3 nearly grown young” observed by Surber in Pine County. Roberts (1936) added a nest found in the Fort Snelling Reservation in April 1932, and his young protégé Mr. Breckenridge banded 3 nestlings from the Fort Snelling nest. One of the nestlings was later recovered in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, in January 1933.

Green and Janssen (1975) briefly summarized the American Woodcock as a resident in “northeastern, north central, central, and east central regions and in a few adjacent counties to the southeast and northwest.” They reported confirmed nesting in 18 counties, including all 3 counties in the Arrowhead region and in the northwest in Pennington County. In the 40 years since Roberts (1932, 1936) wrote his book, the breeding distribution had become quite different from what he had described.

Marshall (1982) provided a review of the American Woodcock distribution in the state from, as he described it, the “scanty literature, personal reports, and the history of land use changes.” Like Roberts, Marshall said that woodcock were found primarily in the Mississippi and Minnesota River bottoms above and below St. Paul in the late 1800s, where hunters found them abundant. He points out that sports magazines, such as Sports Afield, reported occasions when sportsmen were “shooting 40 birds in three hours.” In addition, newspaper articles said that in 1862, 1864, and 1873 woodcock were being sold in markets and restaurants.

Swanson (1940) quoted numerous reports of hunting of the American Woodcock in the period from 1850 to 1900. For example, one said that near Hastings, Minnesota, “in September 1835, two men shot 55 birds in one day,” and another that “the average bag in that locality in 1879 was 20 woodcock in a morning.” In the late 19th century, a report stated that “the woodcock is scarce enough where you find them.” However, another report refers to the woodcock presence and abundance in the Minnesota River bottoms in 1897, when “one hunter got 11 in a half-day tramp.”

Marshall surmised that indeed American Woodcock may have been largely confined to the Mississippi and Minnesota River floodplains during the early years because much of the forested habitat of Minnesota was mature and unsuitable for the species. In addition, mortality of woodcock was high due to hunting in spring, summer, and fall, especially from market hunting in the southern United States, which may have kept populations low. Indeed, concerns about population levels in the early 1900s led to enactment of federal and state laws that confined hunting seasons and set bag limits.

Marshall maintained that the changes in the distribution of American Woodcock in Minnesota were undoubtedly related to changes in land-use practices during the 60 years from the 1920s to the 1980s. The species’ continued scarcity in southeastern Minnesota was associated with intensive agriculture and dairy farming, which left unsuitable habitat. But in the northern forested areas, logging and wildfires created the early stages of forest succession, which was good habitat for the woodcock. He went on to describe the expansion of the species’ range into the northern and western parts of Minnesota. Woodcock were not seen until the mid-1960s in Itasca State Park, and Dr. Dan Svedarsky, a professor at the University of Minnesota in Crookston, recorded nests and broods in a prairie area invaded by brush in Pennington County in 1975, 1976, and 1977.

Janssen (1987) described the expansion of the American Woodcock’s breeding distribution into the southwestern and western regions of Minnesota. He reported confirmed nesting since 1970 in 31 counties, including in the far western county of Big Stone and in the extreme southwest in Pipestone County. Hertzel and Janssen (1998) later added 37 counties with confirmed nesting records since 1970. They included 10 additional counties not included by Janssen (1987): Becker, Brown, Grant, Itasca, Kandiyohi, Koochiching, Pennington, Redwood, Waseca, and Winona. They did not include confirmed nesting in Carlton, Kanabec, Pine, or Washington Counties, which had been listed by Janssen (1987).

The Minnesota Biological Survey began their inventories in the late 1980s and reported 89 breeding season locations (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources 2017a). Most locations are scattered in the north-central and northeastern part of the state. Notable locations include 1 in Houston County in extreme southeastern Minnesota, 1 on the border between Lincoln and Yellow Medicine Counties, 2 in Marshall County, and 5 in Kittson County in extreme northwestern Minnesota.

Superb efforts by the participants in the MNBBA resulted in a whopping 1,026 records of the American Woodcock, which were widely distributed in Minnesota, except for the extreme southwestern region (Figure 2). MNBBA observers reported records from 14.3% (696/4,853) of all blocks surveyed and 12.4% (289/2,337) of the priority blocks (Figure 3; Table 1). Confirmed nesting was recorded in 79 blocks and in 33 counties. Confirmed nesting in counties not previously recorded by Hertzel and Janssen (1998) since 1970 included Crow Wing, Isanti, Kanabec, Lac qui Parle, Marshall, Morrison, Norman, Pine, Polk, Pope, Scott, Steele, Todd, and Washington Counties. One confirmed nest straddled 2 counties: Brown and Renville along the Minnesota River. The MNBBA did not record confirmed nesting from several counties previously reported but did report probable or possible nesting in most of these. Counties where no nesting evidence was reported were Big Stone, Le Sueur, Pipestone, and Ramsey. The differences between the MNBBA results and Hertzel and Janssen’s (1998) are partly due to the longer time period of coverage included in the earlier report but also may be due to variations in coverage, changes in habitats and landscapes, annual variation, and differences in the definitions of what constitutes a confirmed nesting record.

The extensive surveys in northern St. Louis County were completed by Steve Wilson, who dedicated considerable effort to a systematic count in that region. His specific interest was to determine the breadth of the species’ distribution in a regional area. His results suggest that the American Woodcock’s distribution and abundance are likely underestimated in Minnesota.

The landcover suitability map for the American Woodcock predicts that the species could be distributed throughout the state where suitable habitat exists, although it was expected to be most abundant in the north-central and northeastern portions (Figure 4). Several linear areas, such as along the Minnesota River and a broad swath along the Mississippi River floodplain, are predicted to have moderately suitable areas.

In their review of the American Woodcock in North America, McAuley et al. (2013) provided little background on historical changes in the distribution of the American Woodcock. However, they cited Marshall’s 1982 summary of northward expansions of breeding birds that colonized available habitats opened up by logging activity. Thereafter, few data were available until the late 1960s, when American Woodcock singing-ground surveys were initiated in 1968 across much of the species’ eastern and central range (Kelley et al. 2008).

In Wisconsin, similar changes in the distribution of the American Woodcock have been noted. For instance, Cutright et al. (2006) said that woodcock populations were declining in the late 1800s, and Robbins (1991) reported that woodcock were uncommon in southern Wisconsin and fairly common in central and northern Wisconsin. The situation in Michigan was similar. Chartier et al. (2013) noted that the woodcock was certainly far less abundant and more scattered throughout Michigan prior to European settlement. Currently the species is found throughout Michigan. Highest densities are in the northern Lower Peninsula and eastern Upper Peninsula. They attribute the greater abundance of the species in Michigan today to the proportion of land covered in young forests and the increased proportion of aspen–paper birch in Michigan. The presettlement forests of Michigan had less than 5% aspen–paper birch. Today it is greater than 26%.

In summary, the historical reports of the American Woodcock in Minnesota suggest the species was largely confined to the Mississippi and Minnesota River floodplains in the 1800s. Excessive hunting of the species throughout the United States likely kept populations low until hunting regulations began to be implemented in the early 20th century. As Marshall (1982) in Minnesota and Chartier et al. (2013) in Michigan suggest, the woodcock population began to increase and expand its population after the major logging periods in late 1800s and early 1900s. However, forest fires were also frequent, and regeneration of aspen occurred following these fires for hundreds of years prior to the 19th century. Two additional factors that limit our understanding of the American Woodcock range in Minnesota are the lack of observations or documents from early explorers, and the scant knowledge about the effect of the lack of adequate food resources, such as earthworms. Regarding the latter, Frelich et al. (2006) have documented that much of the forested areas of Minnesota that were glaciated lacked earthworms. It is only recently that this food resource has increased in many forested regions of central and northern Minnesota.

*Note that the definition of confirmed nesting of a species is different for Breeding Bird Atlas projects, including the definition used by the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas, compared with a more restrictive definition used by the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union. For details see the Data Methods Section.

Figure 2.

Breeding distribution of the American Woodcock in Minnesota based on the Breeding Bird Atlas (2009 – 2013).

Print Map
Figure 3.

Summary statistics of observations by breeding status category for the American Woodcock in Minnesota based on all blocks (each 5 km x 5 km) surveyed during the Breeding Bird Atlas (2009-2013).

Breeding statusBlocks (%)Priority Blocks (%)
Confirmed79 (1.6%)32 (1.4%)
Probable426 (8.8%)164 (7.0%)
Possible187 (3.9%)92 (3.9%)
Observed4 (0.1%)1 (0.0%)
Total696 (14.3%)289 (12.4%)
Table 1.

Summary statistics for the American Woodcock observations by breeding status category for all blocks and priority blocks (each 5 km x 5 km) surveyed during the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (2009-2013).

Figure 4.

Landcover suitability of the American Woodcock in Minnesota based on habitat, landscape context, and climate data gathered during the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (2009-2013) using the MaxEnt modeling approach.

Breeding Habitat

The American Woodcock has been extensively studied in Minnesota and in many parts of its range. Nesting and foraging habitats are described as shrub thickets of alder and willow, recently cut and regenerating forests, abandoned farmland, edges of forest where shrub canopy is high, and young to mid-aged forest interspersed with openings (Roberts 1932; Gutzwiller et al. 1983; Gregg 1984; McAuley et al. 2013). Shrub canopy cover has been documented as high, ranging from 75% to 87% (Morgenweck 1977). Figure 5 illustrates a typical shrubby area of suitable American Woodcock breeding habitat.

Kelley et al. (2008) divided breeding habitat of the American Woodcock into four main categories. (1) Singing grounds where males perform their courtship activities included clear-cuts, natural openings, roads, pastures, cultivated fields, and reverting agricultural fields. They noted that singing grounds were usually less than 109 m from diurnal cover areas. (2) Nesting and brood-rearing habitat was primarily in young, second-growth hardwood stands (e.g., aspen). Brood habitats were characterized by dense, hardwood cover with an abundance of earthworms. (3) Diurnal habitat was described as more variable, including early-successional growth and mature forest with a dense understory. They suggested that the presence of earthworms was critical. (4) Nocturnal habitat was described as open areas, such as clear-cuts, abandoned agricultural fields, and pastures. Woodcock move into these areas at dusk.

Soil conditions such as damp, rich organic soils provide optimal conditions for foraging. American Woodcock avoid heavy clay soils and acidic bogs (e.g., the Red Lake Peatland and the Sax-Zim Bog area) that provide poor habitat for earthworms.

Kelley et al. (2008) took a landscape-level approach to managing American Woodcock. They recommended management units of 200 to 400 hectares, which would support approximately 500 woodcock. Ideally the management units would be within 1.5 to 3.0 km of one another to support gene flow among the populations of woodcock in these units.

Figure 5.

Typical breeding habitat of the American Woodcock (© Gerald J. Niemi).

Population Abundance

Partners in Flight (Partners in Flight 2017) estimated a global population of 3.5 million individuals. The most reliable measure of population trends for woodcock are singing-ground surveys, which were initiated in 1968 (Kelley et al. 2008; McAuley et al. 2013). These consist of permanently established routes throughout the breeding range of the species. They are 6 km routes with 10 listening stations. These surveys indicated a decline in the population of 0.8% per year from 1968 to 2012, but recent surveys from 2002 to 2012 indicate no trend.

In the development of the American Woodcock Conservation Plan, Kelley et al. (2008) compared changes in the historic (1970–1975) to current (2000–2004) number of singing males on the singing-ground surveys. They estimated that the “historic” number of displaying males was 3.07 million in 1970–1974, compared with 2.24 million in 2000–2004. In Minnesota, they reported a decrease in singing males from 276,204 in 1970–1974 to 235,259 in 2000–2004, a loss of about 41,000.

Conservation

Partners in Flight (2017) assigned a high Continental Concern Score to the American Woodcock of 13/20. The largest factor contributing to the estimated score was concern about its declining population trend. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (2017b) has identified the American Woodcock as a Species in Greatest Conservation Need also because of its statistically valid population decline. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (2017b) identified the primary threats as loss of breeding habitat due to urbanization, agricultural development, and the draining and filling of wetlands. The department also cites the maturation of early-successional forests and the subsequent changing of forest structure to one that is less suitable for the American Woodcock.

The American Woodcock is a hunted species. In Minnesota, the estimated number of woodcock hunters has varied from 9,430 to 13,510 from 2002 to 2015, while success rate per active hunter was relatively consistent, from 2.3 birds to 3.5 birds from 2003 to 2015 (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources 2015). From 2004 to 2015, the estimated hunter harvest rates varied from a low of 24,980 in 2011–2012 to a high of 41,479 in 2004–2005.

Kelley et al. (2008) stated that it is “widely believed that loss of early succession forest habitat is responsible for declines in woodcock recruitment and in overall population status.” Therefore, their primary goal is “to half the decline in woodcock populations and return them to densities which provide adequate opportunity for utilization of the woodcock resource.” They have outlined specific conservation plans for Bird Conservation Region (BCR) 11 (Prairie Potholes), which includes the northwestern and western regions of Minnesota, and BCR 12 (Boreal Hardwood Transition). In both of these regions a major goal is to increase the amount of young, regenerating forests in Minnesota. In addition, in BCR 12 they recommended retention of and management techniques that encourage small-diameter forest habitats and shrubland in riparian areas. The southeastern and the central regions of Minnesota are included in BCR 23 (Prairie Hardwood Transition). Because much of the land in BCR 23 is privately owned, goals are to work with private forestland owners to improve habitat conditions for the woodcock.

Climate change may be a looming factor that is detrimental to the future of the American Woodcock. Langham  et al. (2015) and the National Audubon Society (2015), in their review of North American birds potentially susceptible to future climate change, identified the species as “climate threatened.” They emphasize that none of its summer range is considered stable, and they project a 35% decrease in its summer range by 2080. They also project additional range-wide movements of this species northward.

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