• Robert DeCandido PhD

TIMBER-DOODLE: The American Woodcock in NYC 1880-2019

Updated: Feb 28

20 March 2019

Bird Notes: Central Park Bird Walks in late March happen every Saturday and Sunday morning at 9:30am (only). Meet at the Boathouse Restaurant/Cafe. $10/person. Check the Schedule page of this web site for updates to the schedule and directions to the meeting location (the Boathouse). The first Friday walk will be on 29 March; the first Monday walk will be on 8 April. From there on we will add Thursdays (mid-April) and possibly Tue-Wed for the first two weeks of May only. Sandra Critelli will be leading an evening (6pm) walk or two each week in late April through mid-May.

American Woodcocks arrived in number to NYC Parks and Manhattan streets in the last several days, and it is a cause for celebration. These birds are the first harbingers of spring turning up on Broadway, 42nd street, Central Park and Bryant Park (42nd and 5th Ave). These urban Woodcocks could make for a great urban birder festival. For example, on the Twitter alert for NYC Birds (the Manhattan Bird Alert), many non-birders have been posting images of these birds in the most unusual places (eg., a building ledge 5 floors up from 5th Ave.). Given all the reports that come in, a map of Manhattan streets for where most woodcocks have been found showing including dates/times etc., of the best places to keep an eye on besides Bryant Park. All of this to promote awareness of Woodcocks to the rest of the city....whose residents keep wondering what is that strange creature? Similarly, the Wild Bird Fund might develop a one page flyer/info sheet for what to do (and not to do) if an American Woodcock is seen on a city street. Some of these Woodcocks are fine (even though in awful habitat), and will survive the day; others have flown into a building (glass) and are in need of transport to the Wild Bird Fund. What should a person look for when finding an American Woodcock on a city street to assess if it is injured - or not? Because Woodcocks have such low survival rates in captivity (see Historical Note A below), it is imperative that we are fully confident that chasing down and capturing a woodcock is absolutely necessary.

In our Historical Notes we send reports of (a) the difficulty of keeping American Woodcocks alive when taken into care (captivity) known as long ago as 1910. (Indeed it would be good to know the survivorship rate for these birds at the Wild Bird Fund in Manhattan, and how that rate compares to survivorship in other birds taken into captivity.) (b) Woodcocks found on city streets in mid-town Manhattan (1881); near the Brooklyn Bridge (1889); and hunting Woodcocks at Bay Ridge, Brooklyn (18 March 1880); (c) the weights of male and female Woodcocks in the 19th century (1880); and finally (d) the Woodcock's song (and display) as seen in the Jerome Avenue area of the Bronx in 1885; in the words of the writer: "the love song of that russet denizen of the bosky dell, Philohela minor."

American Woodcock in Central Park on 15 March 2015 by Adam Rudt

Good! Here are the bird walks for late March

All Bird Walks in Central Park

1. Saturday, 23 March at 9:30am - meet at the Boathouse Restaurant in Central Park. 2. Sunday, 24 March at 9:30am - meet at the Boathouse Restaurant in Central Park. 3. Friday, 29 March at 9am - meet at Conservatory Garden (105th st./5Ave)

The Boathouse Restaurant is located at 74th street and the East Drive within the park.

Directions to All Meeting Locations can be found here: https://tinyurl.com/ya65n5a8

Any questions send them our way: rdcny@earthlink.net or call: 718-828-8262 (home)

The fine print: On Saturdays and Sundays, our walks meet at 9:30am at the Boathouse Restaurant (approx. 74th street and the East Drive). Please note: the Boathouse is not one of the buildings that surround the nearby Model Boat Pond - people make this mistake all the time!. Our home phone is 718-828-8262...and Deborah's cell is: 347-703-5554. Email is above (rdcny@earthlink.net). If in doubt about whether a walk will take place or not the morning of the walk: check the main landing page of this web site as well as the "Schedule" page - if the walk is cancelled, information will be posted there by 6am the day of the walk, and usually by 11pm the night before. If still confused and as a last resort, call us at home - if no one answers it means we left for the bird walk! We end all our weekend walks at the Boathouse at about noon; you can get a cup of coffee and a muffin there (around $6 total). Walks last about 3 hrs (less if hot or rainy), and you can leave at anytime - we won't be offended. If you need directions/help to your next destination, just ask someone on the walk - we are a helpful group.

White-breasted Nuthatch on 17 March 2019 in Central Park (Mugger's Woods) by Deborah Allen

Here is what we saw last weekend (brief highlights)

Sat-Sun 16-17 March (Boathouse Restaurant at 9:30am) - American Woodcocks were the story in Manhattan in the days leading up to the 16-17 March weekend bird walks. These woodland shorebirds were easily being seen in Bryant Park (42nd and 5th Ave) because there is not much ground cover there, nor dead leaves to hide in. However, many photos were being sent on Twitter (look up Manhattan Bird Alert) for all to oogle over as the Woodcocks were walking about looking for earthworms in that small pocket park. There were also many photos of woodcock from mid-town Manhattan streets - a common occurrence through the years (see historical notes below). On our Bird Walk in Central Park on Saturday while looking for woodcocks, the most amazing find (ever) was made by a British lady who works with seabirds in Europe. While the group was walking along and asking about woodcocks (and Bob saying they are almost impossible to see so don't get your hopes up), a soft voice was heard: "what's that bird over there?" All of us ran over and huddled together...some of us were able to see, not more than 15 feet away and well-hidden in the leaves, an American Woodcock! How this woman managed to spot a stationary bird lying down (and motionless) in dead leaves so perfectly camouflaged, none of us will ever know. Even after pointing the bird out to half the group, people were still having trouble seeing it - and some did not believe it was a bird...just leaves. Again, this stands out in my mind/experience as the single best "find" on a bird walk because that American Woodcock was not moving and was perfectly blending in with the leaves surrounding him/her. Meanwhile, other migrants were also seen: Matthieu Benoit found two Brown Thrashers at the Dock on Turtle Pond; we also located a male and female Eastern Towhee in the Ramble; and there were many overlooked migrants such as Dark-eyed Juncos, Song Sparrows and American Robins. Saturday morning was certainly the better morning to find migrants...by Sunday many of the previous had left, and the only notable addition was a group of 10 Fox Sparrows (Mugger's Woods). Dr. Barry Pinchefsy and others got superb photos of a first winter Cooper's Hawk at the bird feeders. Such is the pattern of spring bird migration - great one day and then birds are gone the next....one has to be aware of the overnite winds (you want warm winds from southwest) to bring migrants to the area.

Deborah Allen's List of Birds for Saturday, 16 March: http://tinyurl.com/y4clbudm Deborah Allen's List of Birds for Sunday, 17 March: http://tinyurl.com/y552fx8e


A Woodcock in New York City [1911]. On March 10, Mr. Louis H. Schortemeier brought into the office of the National Association of Audubon Societies a Woodcock, Philohela minor, which he had picked up in Maiden Lane, New York City, that morning (March 25, 1911 [note disparity of dates!!!]). The bird appeared to be in good condition, save that it was probably weak from hunger. It was sent to the New York Zoological Park. Mr. Crandall informs me that the bird refused all food and was kept alive for about a week by stuffing it with worms and maggots, when it died. This has been the previous experience at the Park with these birds and is in line with one experience that I had. Although Mr. Crandall even secured earth worms for this bird, and buried them in soft earth, the bird refused to eat voluntarily. B. S. Bowdish, Demarest, N.J.

A Woodcock in Reservoir Square [1881 - Manhattan]. Two New York city correspondents send us this very interesting note of a woodcock observed in one of the city parks. On crossing Reservoir square, Forty-second street and Sixth avenue, about noon, July 1 [1881], a woodcock, Philohela minor, was observed feeding with the sparrows. Upon approaching it, it seemed quite tame, but would not allow us to go very near it. After picking around for some time it flew into some bushes and disappeared, and we were unable to find it afterward. E. W. L. and S. W. A.

[Some months ago our readers will remember we chronicled the capture of a woodcock in a house in Brooklyn, the bird having flown in through a window.]

WOODCOCK IN TOWN [1889]. NEW YORK, Oct. 19. I live just four blocks from the Brooklyn Bridge. On Thursday morning last, at 10 o'clock, my wife, hearing a knock at the door, opened it, and found a woodcock lying on the stone steps. It had apparently flown against the door. The tip of its bill was broken and blood was flowing from its mouth. It was put in a basket in a warm room, but died in the late afternoon. The bird was plump and in fine condition. What induced this bird to come so far within the city limits? S.E.

Brooklyn, 18 March 1880. In your last issue I notice that a party of gunners started at Bay Ridge [Brooklyn] some twenty-five Woodcock. May 1, through your paper, ask of those gunners one or two pertinent questions? What business did said party of gunners have at Bay Ridge this season of the year? And how many of those twenty-five woodcock did they kill? I am told that the following evening a prominent politician of Brooklyn had woodcock for his supper, furnished by some gunner. Whether said gunner was of said party I am not positive. Would it not be well for our shooting clubs to employ a detective to watch a little those Bay Ridge gunners?

The Heaviest Woodcock [1880]. I notice inquiries for heaviest weight of woodcock or quail shot in America, and I have had quite an extensive experience with woodcock and ruffed grouse. I will give my testimony as he requests. Some years ago I shot a remarkably large female [wood]cock which attracted my attention so forcibly that weighed and found it kicked the beam at just 11.5 ounces. Since then I have shot two or three which I thought might possibly be larger, but was not positive, as no facilities for weighing them were at hand. This I can say is the largest American woodcock I ever saw. Let us hear from others on this, and also the heaviest weight on ruffed grouse. M. P. McKoos.

Syracuse, N. Y., Oct. 9 [1880]. I find recorded in my note book the weight of two woodcock: one killed October 10, 1851, by John H. Mann, the other killed November 10, 1877, by Jefferson Downs; the former weighing 10 ounces, the latter 10 and 3/16ths ounces. Have no record of weight of quail. John. H. Mann

The ordinary weights of woodcock are from about 5 to 6 ounces for males, and 7 to 8 ounces for females. In 1874, while quail shooting in Warren county, N. J., late in November, we moved two woodcock one day, the only long bills we found, and were fortunate enough to kill them both. One weighed 9.25 ounces and the other 9 ounces; 18.25 ounces for the two. These were the largest woodcock we ever saw. Quail do not seem to have been weighed, but we shall look for reports when the season opens.

THE WOODCOCK'S SONG [1885]. JUST at twilight one evening last week, while passing through Briggs avenue, on my way from the station at Williamsbridge [Bronx] to my home at East Chester, a clear sharp sound broke upon the evening air, resembling, as nearly as I can describe it, the word "pake." It brought me to a halt on the instant. More than forty years ago I first heard this sound, and my grandfather, a keen old sportsman, taught me its meaning; it was the love call of the male woodcock.

Several times the call was repeated, and then came that swift whistling of wings, which has so often in the cover sent my gun flying to my shoulder. A dark object, outlined for an instant against the fading light still lingering in the western sky, disappeared in the deepening gloom. Then high up in the air began the song of the bird, soft low notes at first, gradually increasing in volume as he rose in the air apparently in circles, until with a louder, wilder burst of melody the song abruptly ceased and he darted silently to the ground very near the spot from which he arose and then rang out the sharp "pake" described above.

I had been told when a boy that this cry, which can be heard a quarter of a mile or more under favorable circumstances, was always preceded by a low, guttural sound resembling the words "coo, ah," which could be heard but a few feet. "Wishing to assure myself of the fact - if fact it was - I waited until he rose again, which he did after an interval of two or three minutes, when I gained a position nearer the spot from which he arose; then keeping perfectly quiet a moment after the song had ceased in the air, I saw him come to the ground swiftly but silently. I was still twenty-five or thirty yards from him and unable to hear the sound for which I was listening.

Keeping my position until he had uttered the louder cry several times, he again went up in the air, when I moved forward, and lying at full length upon the ground awaited his return. I knew he would re-alight within a second after the song ceased in the air, but he came down behind me, and so silently, that the first intimation I had of his presence was hearing the guttural sound I have mentioned, fifteen or twenty feet from me. After this had been repeated several times the louder cry was heard. Listening until the two sounds had been repeated several times, I made a slight movement and he flew away at once and I heard him no more.

Gifted writers have immortalized both in prose and verse the songs of the nightingale, the skylark and many other feathered songsters, but to me the love song of the woodcock surpasses them all. It brings to mind with pleasure thoughts of those with whom I have for years as the opening seasons came round, hunted this most splendid of all gamebirds and with whom, God willing, I trust to have many pleasant seasons again. It brings to mind with sadness thoughts of other friends who have "joined the great majority" and will never again press the trigger or traverse me the covers. It assures me, too, that although the early extinction of this noble bird has been of late often prophesied, that here almost within the shadow of the great metropolis, when the proper season arrives, my favorite covers on which I first commenced to shoot, more than thirty years ago, and which have never failed me, will not be entirely deserted.

To such of the New York city sportsmen as only know the woodcock as an eagerly sought and much-prized addition to his bag in the field, and who may perhaps never have heard them in the breeding season, I would say: Take a train at Forty second street for Williamsbridge, arriving there about sundown. Stroll leisurely across the Bronx and by Jerome post-office into Briggs avenue. A little over half a mile will take him to a spot formerly known to lovers of woodcock shooting as the "Fishhawk." Here let him sit down, and when the stars begin to come out he will hear on any pleasant evening during the breeding season all I have described. He can return to the city in time to hear some fashionable footlight favorite trill her sweetest lay, but if he is a true devoted follower of Nimrod he will hear nothing that will please him as well as the love song of that russet denizen of the bosky dell, Philohela minor. J. H. D. East Chester, N. Y.

American Woodcock by Sandra Critelli in the Ramble (Central Park) on 23 March 2017

Deborah Allen and Robert DeCandido PhD Follow us on Twitter: @DAllenNYC and/or @BirdingBobNYC

Conservatory Garden (Central Park at 105th street) in mid-April 2016

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