It seems that no matter how many years we've been here at the river enjoying its natural beauty and wildlife, we seem to never stop discovering new and amazing River creatures (new to us, anyway). And it seems that as we learn more about each of these creatures, they teach and inspire us in new and wonderful ways.
We had been out with friends lingering long after a breathtaking sunset’s final embers had faded away. As we were driving down the narrow path to our camp, Bob suddenly hit the brakes. “What’s that?” He exclaimed. "What's what?” I replied, looking into the dark shadows on either side of us wondering if, indeed, he had spotted a Yeti or some other night creature I would prefer to not encounter.
Instead, he pointed to the road directly in front of us where a tiny creature had stopped, apparently frozen by the car’s bright headlights. When I finally spotted it (it blended almost perfectly into the background, I was a bit incredulous. Bob, on the other hand, was able to identify it. “I think it is a woodcock” he announced. And once I realized this strange little bird was harmless, I was able to carefully reach my camera out of the window and get a picture of him before he decided that, perhaps, we weren't as harmless and disappeared into the night.
Seeing a woodcock in the wild, or really anywhere else, was a first for me. What a unique looking little bird with its seemingly misplaced eyes at the top of its head. After studying my picture for a while, I decided to see what else I could find out about our little night visitor. I learned that woodcock have several unique features.
The American Woodcock is a small chunky bird found mainly in the eastern half of North America. Woodcocks spend most of their time on the ground in brushy forests where their brown, black and gray feathers blend them right into the scenery making for the perfect camouflage. They are the only woodcock species in North America. Though they are considered members of the sandpiper family, and though they apparently enjoy living near the River, they are considered upland, rather than shore birds.
One rather fun thing I learned about them is that they have accumulated quite a few alternative nicknames such as timberdoodle, bogsucker, night partridge, brush snipe, hokumpoke and becasse. I am guessing that some of those nicknames came about because of the very unique features, both externally and internally of the woodcock.
The American woodcock has a plump brown, gray and black body, short legs, a large, rounded head, and a long, straight bill. The head is black with 3-4 buff colored crossbars. Adults are 10 to 12 inches long and weigh 5 to 8 ounces. Females are considerably larger than males. Woodcocks primarily feed in early evening and just before dawn, which makes me think that our woodcock was returning from dinner about the same time we were. Their main menu item is earthworms. Worms are high in fat and protein and provide the necessary nutrients to help keep the woodcock healthy and strong. They will also dine on insects such as ants, flies, crickets, centipedes and spiders. An adult woodcock may eat its weight in worms every day.
American woodcock chicks are able to leave the nest within a few hours after hatching. They are covered with fine pale down with brown spots, stripes above and reddish-brown below. A dark line runs from the bill to the eyes. From the day they hatch, the chicks learn to "freeze" when threatened or in response to hearing the hen's alarm call. Just like the woodcock we saw that night. Chicks grow rapidly on their high-protein diet of earthworms and bugs. After only two weeks, they can fly short distances and by the end of four weeks, they are nearly full grown. Not only are they flying strongly, but they have almost reached their adult size and weight. The family breaks up when the chicks are six to eight weeks old.
The population of the American woodcock has fallen at about one percent annually since the 1960s. This is thought to be primarily due to the loss of natural habitats due to loss of forests and urban development. Thankfully, in 2008, wildlife biologists and conservationists developed the American Woodcock Conservation Plan that would require the creation of young forests in both the US and Canada in order to stabilize the woodcock population at its current levels at the time.
I discovered that the woodcock has three particularly unique features. The first is the woodcock’s bill. The bill is 2.5 to 2.75 inches long and appears too long for its body. However, it is specially adapted for seizing, grasping, or holding, especially by wrapping around an object. This seemingly disproportionate attribute comes in very handy for probing in the soil for food such as earthworms. In addition to its length, the bill also has a unique bone-and-muscle arrangement that allows the woodcock to open and close the tip of the upper bill while it is sunk in the ground. Both the underside of the upper bill and the long tongue are rough-surfaced for grasping those slippery earthworms.
Another unique feature of the woodcock is its eyes. The eyes also have the appearance of being disproportionally large, are set far back and extremely high on the sides of its head. A woodcock's ears are ahead of its eyes, between the base of the bill and the eye sockets. These high-set eyes may look a little strange but have a very practical purpose, giving them a visual field which is possibly the largest of any other bird being full circle in the horizontal plane and 180 degrees in the vertical plane. This positioning lets the bird look to all sides while probing for food.
What I found to be the most interesting and unique feature, even though this feature is hidden from the casual observer’s sight (or any other observer for that matter) is the woodcock’s brain. The brain of an American woodcock is indeed distinctive among birds. The part of the brain which controls muscle coordination and body balance (the cerebellum), is located below the rest of the brain and above the spinal column (in other birds, the cerebellum occupies the rear of the skull). So, in essence, the woodcock has an upside-down brain (maybe this was so interesting to me, because I have been accused of the same). And once again, this unusual feature better equips the woodcock with its enhanced ground-probing abilities.
Any time one encounters a creature with unique features that no other similar creature has, one has to logically figure there is a special reason for those features. The eye placement, the bill and the brain location of the cute little woodcock all seem perfectly suited for its wooded environment. You might say that the woodcock was perfectly designed to survive and to thrive.
And one could say the same thing about each of us. Every one of us was uniquely designed for a specific purpose only we can fulfill. And when we pursue those passions placed in our heart and that we were designed for, we will not only survive but will thrive both in this life and the one to come. That is what the Psalmist was talking about when he wrote, "You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body and knit me together in my mother's womb. Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous. How precious are your thoughts about me, O God. They cannot be numbered!" (Psalm 139:13-17). Indeed, I agree with the Psalmist's response to all of this: "Such knowledge is too wonderful for me". Perhaps it is too wonderful to fully comprehend, but it is not too wonderful to find incredible encouragement and hope in, regardless of the direction your brain works in.
By Patricia Mondore
Patty Mondore and her husband, Bob, are summer residents of the Thousand Islands. Patty is a published author and a singer/song writer. Her most recent books include “River Reflections: A 90-Day Devotional for People Who Love the Water” and its sequel, “Nature Reflections: A 90-Day Devotional for People Who Love Nature.” Her other books include “River-Lations: Inspirational stories” and photos from the Thousand Islands, A Good Paddling, Proclaim His Praise in the Islands, and Perennial Faith. She and Bob, co-authored “Singer Castle” and “Singer Castle Revisited” published by Arcadia Publishing, and co-produced Dark Island’s “Castle of Mysteries” documentary DVD, in addition to a Thousand Islands music DVD trilogy. Patty is a contributing writer for the “Thousand Islands Sun.” Her column, "River-Lations", appears in the Vacationer throughout the summer months. The Mondores are online at www.gold-mountain.com. (PS. Be sure to visit Bob Mondore’s singercastle.blogspot.ca too.)