Dear Readers, I have never seen this little bird, and when you look at its extraordinary camouflage, you can see why – look at that combination of rusts and ochres, beiges and chocolates, against the dead grass. The woodcock has long been thought of as a magical bird – although some stay in the UK all year round, the population is bolstered in the winter by migrants from Scandinavia and Russia, and the first full moon in November is known as a ‘woodcock moon’. It used to be believed that woodcock flew to the moon during the time when they were not apparent, and that they generously carried other, smaller birds that couldn’t make the trip on their own on their backs – the goldcrest, the UK’s smallest bird, was considered to be the usual ‘passenger’. One vernacular name for the goldcrest is ‘the woodcock pilot’.
In the spring, the male performs a display flight at dusk called ‘roding’, which is described as ‘bat-like’ – they call as they fly, and you can watch them here. The call always reminds me a bit of a frog. The females have been known to carry their young on their backs, or in their claws, when threatened. Alas, this secretive little bird has also been hunted, although (or perhaps because) it is extremely difficult to shoot, being small, fast and shy. There is some concern about the hunting of over-wintering birds in France and in the UK. When shot, the birds are cooked whole without being gutted. They sound like one of those delicacies that would take a lot of getting used to though they were apparently a favourite of Edwardian gentlemen. Fortunately these days if you see ‘Scotch Woodcock’ on a menu, you’re likely to get scrambled eggs on toast with anchovy paste, though as anchovies are also endangered it might not be that much of an improvement. The pin feathers of the woodcock were used for painting miniatures, removing the proverbial ‘mote in someone’s eye’, and drawing the gold stripe down the side of a Rolls Royce motorcar.
The woodcock is red-listed in the UK because of a severe decline in breeding range, of over 30%. The main cause seems to be our old favourite, fragmentation of habitat – the birds need large forests and these are increasingly rare, plus over-grazing by deer and over-management of forests makes the habitat less suitable for breeding. Studies in the New Forest have also shown that although the bird spends its days in the forest, at night it can travel for many miles to find the right sort of pasture so it can suck up a few worms. There is much more to be discovered about these cryptic birds, for sure.
This is such a characterful bird – feisty, round, well-camouflaged and even Shakespearian (In Hamlet, Polonius describes his plot to put Ophelia in Hamlet’s way so that he can observe their conversation as a ‘springe (trap) to catch woodcocks’). Let’s hope that, with good forest management, their decline can be halted.