WOODCOCK (O. Eng. wude-cocc, wudu-coc, and wudu-snite) the Scolopax rusticula[1] of ornithology, a game-bird which is prized both by the sportsman and for its excellence for the table. It has a long bill, short legs and large eyes—suggestive of its nocturnal or crepuscular habits—with mottled plumage of black, chestnut- and umber-brown, ashy-grey, buff and shining white—the last being confined to the tip of the lower side of the tail-quills, but the rest intermixed for the most part in beautiful combination. Setting aside the many extreme aberrations from the normal colouring which examples of this species occasionally present (and some of them are extremely curious, not to say beautiful), there is much variation to be almost constantly observed in the plumage of individual, in some of which the richer tints prevail while others exhibit a greyer coloration. This variation is often, but not always, accompanied by a variation in size or at least in weight.[2] The paler birds are generally the larger, but the difference, whether in bulk or tint, cannot be attributed to age, sex, season or, so far as can be ascertained, to locality. It is, notwithstanding, a very common belief among sportsmen that there are two “species” of woodcock, and many persons of experience will have it that, beside the differences just named, the “little red woodcock” invariably flies more sharply than the other. However, a sluggish behaviour is not really associated with colour, though it may possibly be correlated with weight—for it is quite conceivable that a fat bird will rise more slowly, when flushed, than one which is in poor condition. Ornithologists are practically unanimous in declaring against the existence of two “species” or even “races,” and, moreover, in agreeing that the sex of the bird cannot be determined from its plumage, though there are a few who believe that the young of the year can be discriminated from the adults by having the outer web of the first quill-feather in the wing marked with angular notches of a light colour, while the old birds have no trace of this “vandyke” ornament. Careful dissections, weightings and measuring seem to show that the male varies most in size; on an average he is slightly heavier than the female, yet some of the lightest birds have proved to be cocks.[3]

Though there are probably few if any counties in the United Kingdom in which the woodcock does not almost yearly breed, especially since a “close time” has been afforded by the legislature for the protection of the species, there can be no doubt that by far the greater number of those shot in the British Islands have come from abroad,—mostly, it is presumed, from Scandinavia. These arrive on the east coast in autumn—generally about the middle of October—often in an exhausted and impoverished state. If unmolested, they are soon rested, pass inland, and, as would appear, in a marvellously short time recover their condition. Their future destination seems to be greatly influenced by the state of the weather. If cold or frost stop their supply of food on the eastern side of Great Britain they press onward and, letting alone Ireland, into which the immigrant stream is pretty constant, often crowd into the extreme south-west, as Devonshire and Cornwall, and to the Isles of Scilly, while not a few betake themselves to the unknown ocean, finding there doubtless a watery grave, though instances are on record of examples having successfully crossed the Atlantic and reaching Newfoundland, New Jersey and Virginia.

With regard to the woodcock which breed in Britain, pairing takes place very early in February and the eggs are laid often before the middle of March. These are four in number, of a yellowish cream-colour blotched and spotted with reddish brown, and seldom take the pyriform shape so common among those of Limicoline birds. The nest—always made on the ground amid trees or underwood, and usually near water or at least in a damp locality—is at first little more than a slight hollow in the soil, but as incubation proceeds dead leaves are collected around its margin until a considerable mass is accumulated. During this season the male woodcock performs at twilight flights of a remarkable kind, repeating evening after evening (and it is believed at dawn also) precisely the same course, which generally describes a triangle, the sides of which may be a quarter of a mile or more long. On these occasions the bird's appearance on the wing is quite unlike that which it presents when hurriedly flying after being flushed, and though its speed is great the beats of the wings are steady and slow. At intervals an extraordinary sound is produced, whether from the throat of the bird, as is commonly averred, or from the plumage is uncertain. This characteristic flight is in some parts of England called “roading,” and the track taken by the bird a “cock-road.”[4] In England in former times advantage was taken of this habit to catch the simple performer in nets called “cock-shutts,” which were hung between trees across the open glades or rides of a wood. A still more interesting matter in relation to the breeding of woodcocks is the fact, finally established on good evidence, that the old birds transport their newly hatched offspring, presumably to places where food is more accessible. The young are clasped between the thighs of the parent, whose legs hang down during the operation, while the bill is to some extent, possible only at starting, brought into operation to assist in adjusting the load if not in bearing it through the air.[5]

Woodcock inhabit suitable localities across the northern part of the Old World, from Ireland to Japan, migrating southward towards autumn. As a species they are said to be resident in the Azores and other Atlantic Islands; but they are not known to penetrate very far into Africa during the winter, though in many parts of India they are abundant during the cold weather, and reach even Ceylon and Tenasserim. The popular belief that woodcock live “by suction” is perhaps hardly yet exploded; but those who have observed them in confinement know that they have an almost insatiable appetite for earthworms, which the birds seek by probing soft ground with their highly sensitive and flexible bill.[6] This fact seems to have been first placed on record by Bowles,[7] who noticed it in the royal aviary at San Ildefonso in Spain, and it has been corroborated by other observers, and especially by Montagu, who discovered that bread and milk made an excellent substitute for their ordinary food. They also do well on chopped raw meat.

The eastern part of North America possesses a woodcock, much smaller than, though generally (and especially in habits) similar to, that of the Old continent. It is the Scolopax minor of most authors; but, chiefly on account of its having the outer three primaries remarkably attenuated, it has been placed in a separate genus, Philohela. In Java is found a distinct and curiously coloured species, described and figured by Horsfield (Trans. Linn. Society, xiii. p. 191, and Zoolog. Researches, pl.) as S. saturata. To this H. Seebohm (Geographical Distribution of the Family Charadriidae, p. 506) referred the S. rosenbergi of Schlegel (Nederl. Tijds. v. d. Dierkunde, iv. p. 54) from New Guinea. Another species is S. rochusseni from the Moluccas; this has, like the snipe, the lower part of the tibia bare of feathers.  (A. N.) 

  1. By Linnaeus, and many others after him, misspelt rusticola. The correct form of Pliny and the older writers seems to have been first restored in 1816 by Oken (Zoologie, ii. p. 589).
  2. The difference in weight is very great, though this seems to have been exaggerated by some writers. A friend who has had much experience tells us that the heaviest bird he ever knew weighed 16¼ oz., and the lightest 9 oz. and a fraction.
  3. Cf. Dr Hoffmann’s monograph Die Waldschnepfe, ed. 2, p. 35, published at Stuttgart in 1887.
  4. The etymology and consequently the correct spelling of these expressions seem to be very uncertain. Some would derive the word from the French rôder, to rove or wander, but others connect it with the Scandinavian rode, an open space in a wood (see Notes and Queries, ser. 5, ix. p. 214, and ser. 6, viii. pp. 523, 524). Looking to the regular routine followed by the bird, the natural supposition would be that it is simply an application of the English word road.
  5. Cf. J. E. Harting, Zoologist (1879), pp. 433–440, and Mr Wolf's excellent illustration. Sir R. Payne-Gallwey, in the “Badminton Library” (Shooting, ii. p. 118, note), states that he himself has witnessed the performance.
  6. The pair of muscles said by Loche (Expl. Scient. de l'Algérie, ii. p. 293) to exist in the maxilla, and presumably to direct the movement of the bill, do not seem to have been precisely described.
  7. Introduccion a la historia natural y a la geografia fiscia de España, pp. 454, 455 (Madrid, 1775).