Friday, 18 April 2014

So... DOES the Woodcock carry its Young in Flight?

So... DOES the Woodcock carry its Young in Flight?

The secretive and elusive Woodcock spends most of its life out of sight in damp woodlands. The only sighting many birdwatchers have is of the distinctive roding flight of males over their breeding wood at dusk on a spring evening, or of a roosting bird accidentally flushed from the ground, particularly in winter.

Despite the mysteries surrounding their life and habits Woodcock have been hunted for food in Britain for at least 2000 years. In fact it is far better known by the shooting/hunting fraternity than by birdwatchers.

One of the longest running debates concerning Woodcock behaviour is whether or not they carry their young in flight and, if so, what part of their anatomy do they use. Despite a large amount of circumstantial evidence and first-hand accounts published by many natural history writers through the years there seemed to be a reluctance to accept this as fact by the ornithological scientific world for at least 150 years!

The following are some of many references relating to the carrying of young by Woodcock:

In one of his famous letters, dated 14 Sept 1770, the Hampshire naturalist Gilbert White comments on a recent publication by Johannes Scopoli, an Italian-Austrian scientist, in which Scopoli states that the Woodcock carries its young in its beak when escaping from an enemy. White describes this as 'an improbable fact' but admits he cannot say it is false as he has never witnessed such an event.

A Familiar History of Birds by Edward Stanley (1865) contains the passage: " The keeper spoke very positively of its being customary with the old birds to fly off every morning and evening with the young ones to the nearest springs, and when they were fed, they were conveyed back to the nest in a similar manner".

British Birds in their Haunts by C A Johns (1920, fifteenth addition) contains the passage: "There have been recorded numerous instances in which Woodcocks have been seen carrying their young through the air in their claws; so often, indeed, has the act been witnessed, that it may, perhaps, be a habit of the bird, rather than an extraordinary display of instinct evoked by a sudden emergency". (Confusion and uncertainty over this behaviour amongst writers is shown in that the 1909 and 1948 editions of the book state that the young are carried between the thighs.

T A Coward (1929) sums up the long running saga of whether Woodcock do or do not carry their young: "It is not certain that the old bird carries them to and from the wet feeding ground, but she will carry them away if the nesting site has been discovered. As to how this is accomplished is one of the ever-fruitful themes for ornithological squabbles".

At last, in 1934 to 1935, the BTO organized the Woodcock Enquiry in an attempt to clarify some of the mysteries surrounding this bird. Among the findings, published by W B Alexander 10 years later, were the following:

Cases of chick seen carried:
between legs and body, 97
in feet or claws, 38
partly supported by tail (including some of the preceding), 19
partly supported by bill (including some of the preceding), 1
on back, 7
taking two in succession, 3 or 4
four young in succession, 2
A number of cases of young being dropped were reported and one astonishing one of three dropped together

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of these findings is that Woodcock not only carry their young away from danger, as one might expect, but routinely transport them from the dry breeding area to wetter areas to feed.

It is now generally accepted that Woodcock normally carry their young between their thighs, particularly when flying any distance but there are modern undoubted sightings of birds carrying their young with their feet, pressed against the breast and supported by the adult's beak, and even just by the bill.

Interestingly, Common Sandpiper and Redshank have also been observed carrying young between their thighs though generally only to avoid a nearby obstacle, such as a wall.

Researched and Reported by Phil Read