Biologists use the word habitat to describe a physical place that a wild creature needs in which to feed, rest, breed, and rear young.
In general, the best woodcock habitats (also called woodcock cover) consist of young, densely growing hardwood trees rooted in moist soil that supports ample numbers of earthworms, the birds' primary food. Trees and shrubs typically found in woodcock habitats include aspen, alder, apple, birch, dogwood, crabapple, and hawthorn. However, it's not so much the species of trees and shrubs that supply woodcock needs, but their "structure": how densely they grow in a given area.
Scientific research has revealed that woodcock need somewhat different habitats depending on the activities they're engaged in, the time of day, the season of the year, and the weather. General descriptions of each important habitat type follow. (For more detailed information, see singing grounds, feeding areas, roosting areas, and nesting areas.)
In the spring, male woodcock stake out breeding territories called singing grounds. In these fairly open sites, the males call repeatedly and launch themselves into the air during dawn-and-dusk courtship flights aimed at attracting females.
Singing grounds include log landings, clearings in wooded land, old fields, pastures, the grassy berms of country lanes and woods roads, and powerline right-of-ways. Singing grounds must lie close to areas of dense cover where the hens can nest and rear young.
Feeding Areas and Daytime Habitats
Woodcock feed and rest in the dense growth of brush, shrubs, and young forest. They favor alder stands and abandoned farmland, including old apple orchards where the trees have become crowded by aspens, birches, dogwood, hawthorn, and other light-loving trees and shrubs.
Woodcock seek out areas with rich, moist soil near slow-flowing rivers and streams, lakes and ponds, and wetlands. Soils in such habitats often support good populations of earthworms, a favorite food of woodcock. During drought, woodcock may feed in stands of conifers and mixed conifers and hardwoods.
Nesting and Brood-Rearing Cover
Females nest in young to mixed-age forests near or intermixed with feeding areas. They prefer stands of hardwoods less than 20 years old -- places where the stems are thick enough that a person would have some trouble threading his or her way through. Hens will nest in cutover areas as few as two years after logging. They also nest in woodlands with small pole-sized trees (up to 3 or 4 inches in diameter at breast height) above a dense shrub layer. There may be little overhead cover (as in old fields), or trees up to 50 feet tall, with the average cover height around 12 feet.
In general, nesting cover is somewhat drier than typical daytime feeding areas, but the two are often one and the same.
At dusk in summer and early fall, woodcock fly to partially open areas such as blueberry barrens, fallow fields, pastures, newly logged woods, and brushy pine plantations. Here, the birds roost -- not in trees, but sitting on the ground among the scattered growth of shrubs, weeds, and briars.
In good roosting habitat, the patchy overhead growth protects against owls and other airborne predators. Yet the cover is not so thick that it prevents a woodcock from hearing or seeing a prowling weasel or fox and taking to the air to escape.
Woodcock may feed in stands of mature forest if these wooded areas include a dense understory of smaller trees and shrubs. During drought, woodcock may seek out conifer stands, where the soil stays damp, letting the birds probe for earthworms. If woodcock get caught by early snowstorms in autumn, or late snowstorms after they return to the breeding range in spring, the birds may home in on spring seeps -- areas where the soil temperature stays high enough for the ground to remain snow-free, allowing the birds to probe and find food.
On the southern wintering range, woodcock use a number of different habitats, including old fields, wet thickets, sparse pine forest with a brushy understory, dense bottomland hardwoods, mixed pine and hardwoods, and recently burned-over stands of longleaf pine. Typical plant types include cane, privet, wax myrtle, and briars.
The publication Woodcock in the Southeast (pdf) tells landowners, foresters, and habitat managers how to recognize and create habitat in this part of the timberdoodle's range.
An ideal area for woodcock would have an alder swale or other forested wetland at its core. This central zone, used for feeding and resting, would be surrounded by other stands of thick shrubland or young forest at slightly higher elevations and in patches of five acres or larger, where the birds could also feed, shifting between different zones of soil moisture and earthworm availability as weather patterns changed or drought conditions developed. Ample singing grounds and roosting cover would be nearby.
Since the 1960s, the American woodcock has lost much of its habitat as people have converted brushy land into shopping centers, housing developments, roads, highways, industrial zones, and heavily farmed areas. Woodcock cannot live in such settings.
A second major factor in the loss of woodcock habitat -- and an accompanying decline in the species' population -- is that brushy areas have matured. Abandoned farms, which once offered ideal habitat, have now grown up to become forests. In general, across the woodcock's range little clearcut logging has taken place in recent years, where stands of trees are removed and where sprouts spring up thickly, creating good timberdoodle habitat. Wildfires -- which also give rise to young, brushy growth -- have been suppressed.
Despite the bird's name, the woodcock does not use mature forests of tall, thick-trunked trees, where the trees' interlinking canopies prevent light from reaching the ground and spurring the dense growth of smaller trees and shrubs.
The Wildlife Management Institute and its federal, state, and private partners understand that the only way to reverse the recent downward trend of the woodcock population is to restore and create woodcock habitat. To this end, WMI and its partners work to rejuvenate overmature habitat by cutting it back and allowing it to regrow densely, and to create new habitat by identifying areas where woodcock can thrive and promoting responsible logging or noncommercial cutting in those places.
At the same time, biologists use field research and monitoring to determine population response to habitat management efforts.
This type of habitat management is not considered to be forest fragmentation. Rather, it involves creating a number of different age classes of forest, which woodcock (and many other wild animals) require to live and reproduce.
The different Regional Initiatives -- in the Northern Forest, the New England/Mid-Atlantic Coast, the Appalachian Mountains, the Upper and Lower Great Lakes, and other areas in the woodcock's breeding and winter ranges -- are boosting the timberdoodle population by providing the birds with the habitats crucial to their life's needs.