Rhynchokinesis. Now there’s a word you don’t see every day. When learning about the American Woodcock, the bird depicted in my latest painting above, rhynchokinesis was an attribute of this bird. What is rhyncho- (pronounced rink-oh) kinesis? It’s the ability of some birds to turn their upper mandible upward as they probe for food. For a couple of days, I watched this American Woodcock hunt for worms in my front yard during this year’s snowy April. Little did I know rhynchokinesis was a characteristic of beaks, let alone a thing. Yep, it’s a thing.
So, there’s your geeked-out, bird word for the day. Not that you asked for it, he he, but throw that word around a few times and you might raise some eyebrows. The curious ones will want to know more.
Another interesting tidbit of the woodcock is that the male plays no part in rearing its young. Typically, four eggs are laid by the female, and the male has nothing to do with his offspring other than breeding with the female. Does the song “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” by Paul Simon come to mind?
You just slip out the back, Jack
Make a new plan, Stan
You don’t need to be coy, Roy
Just get yourself free
Hop on the bus, Gus
You don’t need to discuss much
Just drop off the key, Lee
And get yourself free
Additional traits of this bird, perhaps a bit more famous, include its courtship display and its boogie. Hoping to catch the eye of a female, the male will launch 50-300 feet into the air (that’s a wide range, but my research found all sorts of numbers) before zig-zagging back down to the ground where it struts its stuff like a miniature turkey. I have never seen this display in person, but it happens at dusk in the springtime and can continue into the night. Maybe one day I’ll be lucky enough to see it.
Its boogie has an entirely different meaning. When hunting for worms, the American Woodcock rocks its whole body back and forth, as if it doesn’t know whether to take a step forward or backward. It’s suspected that this motion may cause earthworms below to blow their cover and become dinner. For us humans, that’s hard to imagine, but let me try. One earthworm weighs approximately 0.008 ounces, and a woodcock weighs close to 10 ounces. That means woodcocks can weigh up to 1,250 times that of an earthworm. Can an earthworm, lying just millimeters beneath the ground’s surface, feel a 10 ounce earthquake? Thinking about it another way, 1,250 times my weight is about the weight of the ol' space shuttle when empty. Would I hear that, or its vibration, coming my way? I think I would.
Seeing the woodcock for the first time, and in my front yard nonetheless, was thrilling. It’s one of those birds I thought I’d never see without having to take a special trip somewhere. American Woodcocks are the only woodcock species found in North America; seven other species can be found throughout Eurasia, China, the Philippines, New Guinea, and Indonesia.
In other nature news, Northern Flickers are calling alongside cicadas during these hot July days, and thistle has flowered pink. Swamp milkweed has matured in the ditch, topped with pink blossoms by the mailbox. Valerian is abundant, white and huge. Mulberries, juneberries and currants are ripe, and black elderberries are in full bloom. Wild raspberries and blackberries will arrive shortly. Soon, goldenrod will be the star of the show.
Backyard birds hanging around include Common Grackles, Red-winged Blackbirds, Downy, Red-bellied, Hairy and Pileated Woodpeckers, Red and White-breasted Nuthatches, Northern Flickers, Rock Pigeons, American Robins and Crows, Blue Jays, Black-capped Chickadees, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Purple Finches, American Goldfinches, House Wrens, Chipping Sparrows, Common Yellowthroats, Mourning Doves and Song Sparrows. A Gray Catbird sings infrequently from across the street. Deeper in the forest, Chestnut-sided Warblers, Red-eyed Vireos, Veeries, and American Redstarts are common. Occasional Broad-winged Hawks, White-throated Sparrows and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks make appearances, and the Mallard hen can be seen with her babies, but she’s mostly secretive.
I hope you’re all enjoying summer and the birds in your neck of the woods. Thank you for taking a moment of your time.
Arlott, N., Van Perlo, B., Rodriguez Mata, J., Carrizo, G., Chiappe, A, Huber, L. (2021). The Complete Birds of the World. Princeton University Press, p. 106.
Cassidy J., & Scheffel, R. (1990). Book of North American Birds. The Reader's Digest Association, Inc., p. 480.
Information from the All About Birds website, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/American_Woodcock © Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Retrieved July 22, 2022.
Information from the Audubon website, https://www.audubon.org/news/10-fun-facts-about-american-woodcock. Retrieved July 22, 2022.
Information from the HowtoPronounce Pronunciation Dictionary. https://www.howtopronounce.com/rhynchokinesis. Retrieved July 22, 2022.
Information from the Songfacts website, https://www.songfacts.com/lyrics/paul-simon/50-ways-to-leave-your-lover. Retrieved July 22, 2022.
Kricher, John. Peterson Reference Guide to Bird Behavior. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, New York, 2020, pp. 63, 231.
Mahnken, Jan. (1989). Hosting the Birds. Storey Communications, Inc., p. 118.
Vanner, Michael. (2003). The Encyclopedia of North American Birds. Barnes & Noble Inc., p. 149.