126. THE WOOD-COCK.
Scolopax rusticula (LINNAEUS).
Bill straight; the terminal half pitted. Primaries notched with rufous on the margins of both webs. With cross-bars on the hinder part of the crown. Tail-feathers soft and broad, black, with the tips, on the under side, silvery white.
VERNACULAR NAMES :—Sim-titar, Tu-tatar, Hind.; Chinjarol, Chamba; Sham-titar, Sham-kukra, Kumaon; Kangtruk, Manipur; Wilati-chaha, Chittagong.
THE Wood-Cock is a summer resident on the Himalayas, at or above 10,000 feet elevation, from Kashmir to Assam. In winter this bird descends to the lower valleys of the Himalayas, and spreads itself over the entire Empire and Ceylon. It probably, however, does not reach the Andamans and Nicobars. With this exception, there are few tracts from which this species has not been recorded. It is commoner in the hills than in the plains, but it is found everywhere at times, almost down to the level of the sea in Burma, and probably also in other Provinces.
The Wood-Cock is widely distributed throughout Europe and Asia, breeding as far north as the Arctic circle in Norway and Sweden, and up to about the 60th degree of latitude in Asia. In the winter it is found as far south as the Mediterranean, Persia, India, Burma and China. This species is a permanent resident in many parts of the world, particularly on certain ranges of mountains, and it is also found all the year round in the Azores, the Canaries and Madeira.
The Wood-Cock is erratic in its migrations, and in many portions of the Empire is only a chance visitor, which may be met with at any time in the cold weather. In the parts which they regularly visit, they may be looked for in November. They return north in March. As suggested by Messrs. Hume and Marshall, it is probable that all the Wood-Cocks that visit the plains of India are natives of the Himalayas, for the reason that all Indian-killed birds are persistently smaller and lighter than the birds of Central and Northern Asia or those of Europe.
During the day the Wood-Cock is to be found in woods and bush-jungle, where it lies quiet and concealed. Under ordinary conditions it feeds entirely at night, and then frequents the margins of streams and pools where the ground is soft. By preference, no doubt, this bird chooses running water, but it seems to be very often satisfied to feed near ditches, ponds, and swamps. For instance, Captain Williamson found these birds fairly abundant near Toungoo, on the margins of jhils, and from the holes in the mud made by the bill, it was obvious that they had been feeding there.
The Wood-Cock is generally found singly or in pairs, although a good number of birds may sometimes be found not far distant from each other. In India, it is said to be very tame and confiding, being unwilling to rise, and, when on the wing, only flying a few yards before settling again. This is very different from the flight of a Wood-Cock in Europe, where this bird often rises in such a manner as to afford a most difficult shot.
Except at the time of " roding," referred to further on, the Wood-Cock is a silent bird. It feeds by preference on worms, for which it probes the mud with its long, sensitive bill, but it is also partial to beetles and other insects. Their feeding-grounds can generally be detected at once by some well-known signs, either holes bored in the mud, or some other peculiarity. Thus, Mr. Cordeaux remarks: —" Woodcocks evince a great partiality for some favourite plantation or spot in a cover; they are also very partial to oak-woods ; and their presence may be detected by examining the ground under the trees, as in their search for food they turn over the dead leaves, laying them with great regularity, but the other side up."
The little pointed feather of the Wood-Cock's wing, so much in request amongst painters, is the outermost primary covert, and lies at the root of the first large primary. This feather is about one inch long, narrow, stiff, pointed, and differently coloured to the other primary coverts. It is brown, with pale indentations on both webs, and a whitish tip. The other primary coverts are black indented with chestnut.
In spring, the Wood-Cock has a curious habit, which is thus described by Seebohm ;—"The Woodcock does not drum like the Snipe; but, during the breeding-season, like that bird, the male forgets for a time his skulking habits, and flies backwards and forwards, uttering a peculiar note, which, though unquestionably proceeding from the throat, must be regarded as analogous to the drumming of the Snipe. This peculiar habit of the Woodcock is described as ' roding,' and is indulged in early in the morning and late in the evening in the pairing-season, sometimes before it reaches its breeding-grounds, but more often after its arrival there. This ' roding' continues for about a quarter of an hour, during which two peculiar notes are uttered, sometimes singly, and sometimes one following the other."
In Sweden, the Wood-Cock is shot while "roding," and Mr. Ekstrom, as quoted by Mr. Dresser, remarks :—" During the first days of spring the Woodcock commences ' roding ' the instant the sun has sunk below the horizon, but at a more advanced period somewhat before its final disappearance, and continues until nightfall. In the morning it begins ' roding' whilst still quite dark, and ceases previous to its being full daylight. When the bird ' rodes' there is always an interval between each tour and retour, which is more observable in the evening, when it goes and returns three several times. The first time it always flies high, and generally with rapidity; the second, its flight is but little above the tree-tops, and commonly slower; the third time still nearer the ground, and yet more leisurely; but it is then, especially in early spring, too dark to take proper aim. One ought, therefore, always to fire when it makes its appearance for the second time."
When flying about in this extraordinary manner, the plumage is puffed out and the flight is rather slow.
The Wood-Cock has another peculiar habit. The female, and probably the male also, carry the young birds about, one by one, either to remove them from danger, or to take them to neighbouring feeding-grounds. The young bird is grasped between the thighs, and is further held in position by the pressure of the bill of the parent bird and by the feet.
Professor H. Littledale witnessed an instance of this habit of the Wood-Cock in Chamba. He says :— " To my delight, up flew a woodcock about five yards from me. She had a young one—the men said two young ones, but I could not see two distinctly myself—in her claws pressed close under her ; and she flew slowly and heavily for about ten yards, then rested above a bramble which the young one seemed to catch hold of with its claws, or become entangled in. The old bird fluttered for quite half a minute over it before she could pull the little one clear and fly a few yards further down, when she alighted, but rose again when I sent a man to try to catch the young one."
The Wood-Cock probably breeds throughout the Himalayas at considerable altitudes. The account of the finding of a nest of this species by the late Mr. A. Anderson in Kumaon is no doubt well known to all Indian sportsmen, and I need not reproduce it in full here. It was at an altitude of 10,000 feet, on July 2nd, that he found the nest and four eggs. These latter were deposited in a slight depression in the damp soil, and embedded amongst a number of wet leaves, the smaller ends of the eggs pointing inwards, and also downwards into the ground.
Many other Indian sportsmen have found the eggs of the Wood-Cock in the Himalayas, but I shall only quote the following interesting note by Mr. B. B. Osmaston, from the pages of the Bombay Natural History Society's Journal. He was in the Tons Valley, and he says:—
"On June 17th, as I was leaving their favourite haunts, I flushed a Woodcock in thick herbage at my feet, which only flew a few yards and then fell fluttering to the ground again. My heart beat fast, for I thought that at last I had certainly found the long-sought-for treasure; but no such luck, for I soon saw instead of eggs, three tiny chicks only a day or two old, quite unable to fly, but most clever at running and hiding themselves. I then turned my attention to their mother, who, all the time I had been inspecting her brood, had been going through the strangest of antics with outspread wings and tail, and making a continuous sort of grating, purring noise. She allowed me to approach within a few feet, and then, with an apparent effort, half-fluttered, half-ran away."
In Europe the Wood-Cock breeds as early as the commencement of March. The nest is generally placed on the outskirts of a wood, and invariably on the ground. The eggs are four in number.
The eggs of the Wood-Cock vary much in shape: Some are pyriform, but the majority are short, broad ovals, very blunt at the smaller end. The ground-colour varies from greyish white to pale buff. The surface-markings, consisting of small blotches and spots, are sepia or yellowish brown, and the underlying markings are generally very large blotches of pale greyish brown or pale purple. Both sets of markings are more thickly disposed at the thick end of the egg than elsewhere, and form, in many cases, a well-marked Cap. The shell has a fair amount of gloss. The eggs measure from 1.6 to 1.9 in length, and from 1.25 to 1.42 in breadth.
The plumage of the Wood-Cock is too varied to admit of any very minute description. The intensity of the markings vary a good deal according to age and season.
The forehead and front part of the crown are ashy, generally plain, but sometimes mottled. A black band connects the eye and the base of the bill. The hinder part of the crown is black, crossed by two or three narrow rufous bars. The back is largely blotched with black and mottled with rufous. The scapulars and the long inner secondaries are barred and otherwise marked with black, rufous and ashy. The rump and the upper tail-coverts are rufous, very irregularly barred with black. The tail-feathers are black, indented at the margins with rufous, and broadly tipped with ashy grey above and silvery white below. The upper wing-coverts are firmly barred with black and deep rufous. The first primary has the outer web very distinctly margined with creamy white, and there are a few fulvous marks between this margin and the web. The inner web is brown, with a series of small pale rufous notches on the margin. The other primaries and all the short outer secondaries are brown, with very distinct triangular rufous notches on the outer web, and somewhat similar but paler notches or short bars on the margin of the inner web. The chin is white. The throat and the cheeks are whitish with interrupted black bars. The whole lower plumage is pale rufous, very regularly cross-barred with black. The under tail-coverts have these bars more or less diagonal, and have, in addition, an arrow-head-shaped black spot near the tip. The under wing-coverts and axillaries are very firmly barred with pale rufous and black.
The young bird differs from the fully adult in several respects, but only two are very noticeable and need be referred to here. In the young the outer web of the first primary has no pale margin, and is as plainly marked with rufous notches as the outer web of the other primaries. The marks on the margins of the tail-feathers, instead of being notches as in the adult, are more of the nature of bars and reach almost to the web.
Indian birds are rather smaller than European ones. The sexes do not differ much, if at all, in size. Length about 14; wing about 7.5; tail 3; bill, from gape, varying up to 3.3. The bill is dark brown, paler at the base of the lower mandible; the irides are brown; the legs and feet are grey or plumbeous. Weight usually not exceeding 12 oz. in Indian, but reaching to 16 oz. in European birds. Tail of twelve ordinary feathers.