Slowest flying birds on planet

American woodcock (Scolopax minor) and Eurasian woodcock (Scolopax rusticola), are both relatives but found far from each other. They have many things in common including the slowest powered flight speed for any bird, 8 km/h (5 mph) during courtship displays. In other words they are the world’s slowest flying bird.

American woodcock (Scolopax minor)

Well camouflaged American Woodcock (CC BY 2.0)

Well camouflaged American Woodcock (CC BY 2.0)

Related to snipes this bird migrates at night. It flies at low altitudes, individually or in small, loose flocks. During migration their flight speed has been clocked at 26 to 45 km/h (16-28 mph), but in courtship flights the slowest powered flight speed for any bird, 8 km/h (5 mph) has been recorded. Most displays take place in the gloom of dusk; hence, slow flight facilitates the male to attract attention of female. Since they are crepuscular, being most active at dawn and dusk, their slow flight also comes handy in navigating the edges of wet woodland habitat.

It is believed that woodcock orient visually using major physiographic features such as coastlines and broad river valleys. Both the autumn and spring migrations are leisurely compared with the swift, direct migrations of many passerine birds.

Most birds start to migrate in October, with the major push from mid-October to early November and arrive on the wintering range by mid-December. They head north again in February. Majority of them return to the northern breeding range by mid-March to mid-April. Because of the male woodcock’s unique, beautiful courtship flights, the bird is welcomed as a harbinger of spring in northern areas. It is also a popular game bird.

The primary breeding range extends from Atlantic Canada (Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and New Brunswick) west to southeastern Manitoba, and south to northern Virginia, western North Carolina, Kentucky, northern Tennessee, northern Illinois, Missouri, and eastern Kansas. A limited number of birds breed as far south as Florida and Texas. The species may be expanding its distribution northward and westward. The core of the wintering range centers on Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. Based on the Christmas Bird Count results, winter concentrations are highest in the northern half of Alabama.

Scolopax minor is the only species of woodcock that inhabits North America. Found primarily in the eastern half of North America, it spends most of its time on the ground in brushy, young-forest habitats, where it’s brown, black, and gray plumage provides an excellent camouflage. Although classified with the shorebirds American woodcocks live mainly in upland settings. It has plump body, short legs, large, rounded head, and long, straight prehensile bill. Adults are 10 to 12 inches (25 to 30 cm) long and weigh 140 to 230 g. Females are considerably larger. The bill is 2.5 to 2.75 inches (6.4 to 7.0 cm) long. Its many folk names include timberdoodlebogsuckernight partridgebrush snipehokumpoke, and becasse.

Largest visual field and long prehensile bill

Woodcocks have large eyes located high in the head, and their visual field is probably the largest of any bird, 360° in the horizontal plane and 180° in the vertical plane.

They use their long prehensile bill to probe in the soil for food, mainly invertebrates and especially earthworms. A unique bone-and-muscle arrangement lets the bird open and close the tip of its upper bill, or mandible, while it is sunk in the ground. Both the underside of the upper mandible and the long tongue are rough-surfaced for grasping slippery prey.

Woodcock eat mainly invertebrates, particularly earthworms (Oligochaeta). They do most of their feeding in places where the soil is moist. They forage by probing in soft soil in thickets, where they usually remain well-hidden from sight. Other items in the diet include insect larvae, snails, centipedes, millipedes, spiders, snipe flies, beetles, and ants. A small amount of plant food is also eaten, mainly seeds. 

Eurasian Woodcock (Scolopax rusticola)

Eurasian Woodcock with earthworm (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Eurasian Woodcock with earthworm (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Eurasian woodcocks fly with a whirring wing noise. Flight is somewhat owl or bat-like; while migrating or crossing open country they fly fast and direct, but fly erratically with twisting and fluttering once in woodland. They are usually solitary and migrate singly, but may congregate when weather or geographical conditions force them to do so.

Scolopax rusticola is a medium-small wading bird with rounded wings found in temperate and subarctic Eurasia. Cryptic camouflage suits its woodland habitat, with reddish-brown upperparts and buff underparts. Head is barred with black, not striped like that of its close relative, the snipe. Like the American cousin its large eyes too are set far back on its head to give it 360-degree monocular vision. Like its relative this bird too probes in the ground for food with its long, sensitive bill. They mainly eat earthworms, but also insects and their larvae, freshwater molluscs and some plant seeds. 

The species is sexually dimorphic, with female being much smaller than the male, although the sexes cannot be separated in the field. Bill’s base is flesh-coloured with a dark tip. Colour of legs varies from grey to pinkish. Adults are 13–15 in (33–38 cm) in length, including 2.4–3.1 in (6–8 cm) long straight bill, and have 22–26 in (55–65 cm) wingspan.

Crepuscular (most active at dawn and dusk) in nature Eurasian woodcocks has a large range, with an estimated Global Extent of Occurrence of 10 million square km and a population of an estimated 15-16 million. About one third of the world’s population breeds in Europe, with more than 90% of the continent’s population breeding in Russia and Fennoscandia. Their breeding range stretches from Fennoscandia to the Mediterranean Sea and Canary Islands and from western Europe to Russia.

The species is found through most of temperate and subarctic Eurasia. Northern and Asian populations migrate to southern Europe or the Indian Subcontinent, respectively. Birds in milder western European countries and on Atlantic islands are resident. Populations breeding in north-west and southern Europe are mostly sedentary. Their spring migration commences in February; breeding territories are reached between March and May.

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