On discovering his first woodcock nest, Soldier Palmer is bewitched by tall tales of these mysterious birds airlifting their young to safety
I recently stumbled upon a woodcock’s nest in the forest above my house. This was a major coup for me and I marvelled at the beautiful eggs in their little cup of moss and pine needles. I had almost given up hope that I would ever see a woodcock’s nest, despite the fact that I’m usually pretty good at finding nests, if such a thing is skill and more than good luck. (Read more on woodcock here.)
I celebrated quietly to myself and the only small fly in the ointment was the fact that I didn’t have my phone or a camera to get a picture. I suppose the satisfaction is not really something you can catch in a photograph anyway.
Over the years, I’ve found the nests of everything from nightjars to whitethroats, but woodcock always remained stubbornly elusive. There have been many occasions when I feel like I came close, flushing a bird from suitable cover while walking or working in the woods in spring.
I’ve followed up these flushes with a forensic search of the undergrowth, but it’s likely that any bird disturbed on its nest will usually scuttle away on foot before it flies and I could have been searching in completely the wrong place. These birds might not even have a nest at all and it’s possible that I was miles off the mark. (Can woodcock tell the time?)
There’s always a slight twist in my stomach when I discover a nest. I feel it like a sense of guiltiness, like I’m looking at something that shouldn’t be seen. When you find a nest based on camouflage, there’s also a mental flip in my head that can’t quite make sense of what my eyes are showing me. That woodcock’s nest was an excellent case in point. There was nothing to be seen and then suddenly I made sense of it like one of those ‘magic eye’ pictures you used to see in the 1990s which, if you stared at them for long enough, revealed an image concealed in the pattern.
Woodcock nests are hard to find on account of their superb camouflage, but they’re also becoming ever more scarce as the birds decline. It’s a worrying trend and, although most birds shot in this country come over from abroad, we can’t afford to take our own breeding birds for granted. I’m lucky that there are quite a few around me, but I have wondered if even this local stronghold is weaker than it was 10 or 15 years ago. (How we can help nurture woodcock.)
Doing some research into woodcock, I was interested to find that these birds are considered to be relative newcomers to the UK. They became common breeding birds in Britain during the reign of Queen Victoria and many naturalists recorded their first discovery of woodcock in the summer with delight and surprise.
The rise seems to have been driven by extensive woodland creation, but it’s hard to know whether these birds were here originally and then vanished. That must be the case and what the Victorians saw was a revival rather than a new arrival. I’m inclined to treat some of these observations with a pinch of salt. Victorian naturalists were often unhelpfully deliberate and were more inclined to describe a situation as certain when you or I might tend towards ‘maybe’ or ‘probably’.
The more I looked into woodcock, the more I started to see how confusion and uncertainty hangs around these birds like a fog. One of the greatest stories associated with the species is that adult birds will carry their young to safety when disturbed. This gets good traction and it appears again and again in shooting circles.
I love the idea of it, but I must admit that I have a hard time believing it. It’s such an unbirdlike thing to do and it would be such a cumbersome operation that it’s hard to imagine how it might work in a moment of stress and panicked evasion.
When artists have painted it, they seem to suggest that the chick is clasped between the knees of the flying bird. It’s probably the only way it could be done, but even this seems like a stretch, requiring a degree of thoughtful organisation and choreography from both parties.
I don’t believe that people are lying when they claim to have seen such a thing. I have a friend whose father swore blind that he saw it happen and I completely agree that he saw something rather odd. A woodcock rose up in a fluster and flew awkwardly away through the trees, leaving three chicks in the moss. It landed and then tried to fly back to where he was standing. He deduced that the missing fourth chick must have been airlifted to safety and the parent was returning for the others.
The bird came quite near to him but eventually gave up and vanished into the trees. The facts of this story are incontestable, but there are lots of ways to interpret them. The first and most obvious question is how can he be so sure that there were four chicks? Dozens of other questions follow briskly in the wake of that one.
Some written accounts are rather more detailed and persuasive, including one where a chick was actually dropped from a bird as it flew. But every account has a number of possible alternative explanations and the dropped chick could easily have been picked up by accident while brooding. I can’t ignore the possibility that once people expect to see a woodcock carrying its young, they fill in the gaps required to confirm it.
To get to the bottom of the issue, one Edwardian naturalist found a brood of woodcock chicks and set up a little mesh pen around them so they couldn’t escape. He went back to check on them and found an adult bird standing beside the pen trying to lead them away. When he returned the following day, the chicks were all dead inside the pen. It’s a harsh way to prove a point, but if woodcock understand how to carry their chicks, doesn’t it seem fair to expect the adult bird to attempt some kind of rescue?
I’m more than happy to be proved wrong. I’ve got into trouble for expressing my doubts before, but it’s telling that we’ve never been able to put the idea to bed once and for all. We can’t ignore the fact that, in this modern age of digital photography, when trail cams seem to lurk behind every bush, we’ve still never captured any concrete evidence of woodcock carrying their young.
The fact that we can’t produce photographic evidence is no proof that it doesn’t happen, but we do have to wonder why it’s so hard to find that missing piece of the puzzle. At the same time, I was without a camera when I discovered that woodcock’s nest. Some of the best things you see can’t be photographed anyway.
All this mysteriousness adds to the pleasure we feel when we encounter these birds. Woodcock are magical creatures and given their associations with folklore, lunar cycles and a strange migration from the land of the Vikings, it’s no surprise that they have a mythology of their own. I don’t mean to be a killjoy and it’s not for me to convince anybody that they’re wrong about these birds. I love the fact that people believe this story, even if I don’t believe it myself.