Though the Eurasian woodcock is migratory across most of its range, there are several smaller resident populations that do not migrate. This includes a small but widespread breeding population native to the UK. Woodcock can be found throughout the country with the only notable exceptions being on the highest ground in parts of Scotland, and in south-west England and south Wales.
In the UK, woodcock breed from early March until July, with egg-laying peaking between mid-March and mid-April. A wide range of woodland types may be used, but there appears to be some preference towards more mature woodland with a diverse range of tree species. Certain ground flora species seem to be preferred when selecting nest sites, particularly bramble (Rubus fruticosus) and dog’s mercury (Mercurialis perennis).
Male woodcock may begin displaying as early as the end of February and continue throughout the breeding season. The ‘roding’ display involves a repeated two-part call that is uttered in flight and consists of a high nasal whistle interspersed with a series of low grunts. Until the late 1970s, it was believed that the roding calls were territorial warnings to other males, but Game Conservancy Trust research, conducted by Dr Graham Hirons during the late 1970s and 1980s, proved that this is not the case. Radio-tracking of male woodcock showed that they were not territorial but that roding circuits often overlapped. The roding circuits and calls are akin to a lekking system, with males competing for airspace. The research revealed a polygynous mating system, whereby a dominant male may mate with up to four females in a breeding season, something that was previously unknown prior to the radio-tracking.
Dr. Hiron’s work was also able to dispel the myth that males assist with the incubation and upbringing of young, and showed that in fact the female woodcock is solely responsible for her offspring. The tendency to encounter ‘pairs’ of woodcock during the breeding season arises because male birds will shadow females after mating and during laying, but following this period will leave her in order to attempt to mate again.
The female nests on the ground and the clutch of typically four eggs is incubated for 21 to 24 days. She will lead her offspring away from the nest within a few hours of hatching but they will be dependent on her for the next 15-20 days. The woodcock is renowned for its habit of carrying its young to safety between its feet when threatened. Some may consider this to be folklore and it is certainly hard to authenticate as it so rarely observed, but there are many documented examples of this behaviour. To our knowledge no photographic evidence exists to date.
As a British breeding bird the species is currently ‘amber-listed’ as a bird of conservation concern due to an apparent long-term decline in breeding numbers (-76%, 1974-1999) and range (-31% 1968/72-1988/91). Because of this, research into the breeding ecology of our resident woodcock has become a matter of particular importance. The GWCT conducted dedicated surveys of breeding woodcock in 2003 and 2013 and we intend to continue and expand on this research to look at long-term trends in the British population and identify the drivers of decline.