Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

March 8, 2011

The Early Bird Doesn’t Always Get It

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:29 pm

I got a call the other day about a Woodcock hanging about someone’s driveway (I won’t use their name without permission, but it was a resident of Monroe). The bird was initially injured and sluggish, but appeared to perk up a bit after being captured and confined in a safe warm place. I wanted to look at the little guy before it was released, so the caller kindly agreed to drop it off at my house. I told him I would probably release it into proper habitat the following day or get it into proper hands if it needed treatment (such as a woodcock chiropractor or something). The creature was waiting for me when I got home – confined in one of those copy paper boxes. Good things always come in cardboard boxes punched with a million ventilation holes (see here).

Although the opportunity to see a Woodcock up close was too much to resist, I really wanted to see the live bird before it bit the dust. I’ve held plenty of dead ones in my hand, but warm wiggling ones have eluded me thus far (a woodcock hunt is rather like a snipe hunt you know). I’m not trying to be morbid here, but this was a very early bird indeed. His chances for survival were somewhere between thin and none. These long-billed fellows, called Timberdoodles in some circles and bog suckers in others, are not due in the North Country for a few more weeks at the earliest.  The more usual arrival time is around late March to early April.  Unfortunately, this was a case of the early bird not getting the worm.

Woodcocks are worm specialists. They can, and will, eat insects and spiders if pushed, but they are built for probing soft ground for earthworms. One look at this bird and you can see his distinctively long beak. The tip of this marvelous tool is flexible. Once it is inserted deep into the soil, the woodcock can pull back on the upper mandible (thanks to a kinetic skull) and open up the tip to grab the prey. You’ll also note that the nostril opening, due to this mode of feeding, is located very near the face and that the eyes are located impossibly high on the head (see above and here). To put it simply, these combined features keep dirt out of his sniffer and allows the bird to see potential stalkers (you can imagine how compromising it can be to have your beak embedded in the dirt as a fox sneaks up from behind). Fortunately those bulging eyes permit a nearly unimpeded 360 degree view.

To allow for repositioning the eyes, the timberdoodle has essentially turned its head upside down internally and externally. The ear openings are actually located ahead of the eyes and the cerebellum placed atop, rather than behind, the main portion of the brain. In evolutionary terms, however, their decision making is usually right side up. They certainly can’t be blamed for occasional lapses in judgment given this arrangement. There are records of fall Woodcock failing to move south in a timely manner and paying the price when hit by a sudden cold snap. It is logical to assume they might experience similar lapses of migration logic on the return trip as well.

Because of their lifestyle, the population necessarily heads south to the unfrozen grounds of the S.E. & Gulf States in order to overwinter. There are no worm probing opportunities here when the earth is as hard as a rock. Therefore, they can’t safely return to their spring haunts until the ground thaws out and they can resume their proper occupation.  In all likelihood, this bird experienced thawed conditions while moving north through Ohio and probably entered the county with high hopes of a warming trend.

Unfortunately this Woodcock also experienced a set-back (it had a small wound on its breast – perhaps from running into Jack Frost) and was forced to waste valuable feeding time as it recovered. When the bog sucker was finally released the following morning it was vigorous and alert. The temperature was a wet balmy 51 degrees F. and things were looking very wormy indeed. Perhaps he had cheated death after all, I thought. Unfortunately, the rain eventually turned to snow as the temperatures dropped well below freezing by sunset. The following days have been cold and wintery.

This fellow experienced several changes of fortune over the course of a single day. Bad luck became good, and good luck became bad. Nature doesn’t look kindly upon luck of any sort, so I don’t have any preconceptions that this bird is still alive, but I could be wrong.

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