Danger: low-flying Woodcock!

Woodcock is a cryptically camouflaged inland wader, becomes much more obvious when it appears in urban environments. Photo: Jason Thompson (commons.wikimedia.org).
Woodcock is a cryptically camouflaged inland wader, becomes much more obvious when it appears in urban environments. Photo: Jason Thompson (commons.wikimedia.org).
Woodcock migrating from Russia and Scandinavia are being lured in by the bright city lights and gardens of Britain.

A plump and bizarre-looking bird has been turning up in the most unusual places. In recent weeks, the RSPB says it has been receiving numerous reports of Woodcock showing up in back gardens and even cities. Surprised members of the public have also taken to social media to share pictures of birds appearing in urban areas, including central London.

Many birds appear dazed and confused, having collided with buildings and windows. But as birds which usually live in woodland and rural habitats, what are they doing in our cities?

Many of the Woodcock found in Britain are migrant birds which have spent the summer in Finland and Russia. In October and November, when the cold weather bites, thousands set off for Britain in to enjoy our relatively milder weather. Because they make their long journeys – often more than 1,000 miles – during the night and are low flyers, the birds are prone to bumping into unexpected landmarks. Often these are tall buildings next to rivers, suggesting the birds are using rivers as migratory fly-ways. Experts also suggest that Woodcock are lured by artificial lights, and can mistake glass windows and shiny office buildings for the open sky.

Ben Andrew, RSPB Wildlife Advisor, says: “At this time of year we get calls and tweets almost every day from people who are worried and confused by what they are seeing. Woodcocks are quite large, distinctive birds and make an almighty noise when they strike windows, which is quite distressing for both the bird and for people that find them.”

The wildlife charity suggests fixing an object to the outside of the glass to indicate the obstacle, and break up the sheen of the glass. Try cutting out half moons, stars or hawk shapes from coloured self-adhesive plastic – but any shape should do the trick.

These beautiful, enigmatic birds are normally shy and hard to see. They have eyes on the sides of their heads, giving them 360° vision to help them spot approaching predators. Woodcock eat mostly earthworms, which they extract using their long bills. However during the cold winter of 1962-3, when the ground became too hard to penetrate, some starving individuals were found to be using built-up areas to search for food. Many of our larger parks already have the odd wintering bird, but more are drawn in during colder spells.

The RSPB is encouraging people to interfere as little as possible if they find a Woodcock which has strayed off course and isn’t visibly injured. Given time to recover in peace, they will normally fly off and resume their journeys when ready.
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