Levin: Homebody Advantages

May 31, 2018

2018 has been declared The Year Of The Bird - the one-hundredth anniversary of the landmark agreement between Canada, Mexico, and the United States to protect the birds that migrate across the continent.

But the farther a bird migrates the more environmental problems it faces. And a recent op-ed piece in The New York Times warns that the number of several species of shorebirds are cascading downward so quickly that many ornithologists fear what they describe as “an imminent planet-wide wave of extinctions,” and call the impending collapse “the No. 1 conservation crisis facing birds in the world today.”

Shorebirds are a mercurial tribe of globetrotters, among Earth’s greatest travelers. And those that migrate along continental edges for thousands upon thousands of salty, sandy miles are in peril - mostly because of climate change, coastal development, and the draining of wetlands.

But one type of sandpiper, a large family embedded within the order of shorebirds, is doing better than most. They’re the woodcock and their prosperity is based on choices made long ago. They’re homebodies, less worldly, which has allowed them, successfully if inadvertently, to bypass the gauntlet of environmental ills that now plague other more widely traveled species.

Arthur Cleveland Bent wrote about North American shorebirds during the first half of the twentieth century. He called the woodcock “mysterious hermit of the alders.” And what he couldn’t know at the time was that woodcock were in a far better position to survive the twenty-first century than many other shorebird species because eons ago, woodcock abandoned the coast for the woods. There are six or seven species worldwide; here in Vermont it’s the American woodcock, mainly found in eastern North America.

I love woodcock for their plump bodies; stout heads; big, dark eyes set high up and far apart, and their long, tweezer bills, alert to the movements of earthworms. Their mottled, earthy colors blend so well with the forest floor that if you walk away from a nest containing an incubating female and her four brown-speckled eggs, it’s almost impossible to find it again.

One recent evening, as daylight faded, I relaxed in a hammock on a porch in Pomfret as woodcock spiraled up in a nearby pasture with wings aflutter. It was a courtship as urgent as that of any chorus of peepers... though perhaps just slightly more dignified.