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The flight of the Woodcock

What conditions influence the migratory movements of this bird?

Jente Ottenburghs
Uppsala University, Sweden

Effect of weather conditions on the spring migration of Eurasian Woodcock and consequences for breeding. Le Rest, K., Hoodless, A., Heward, C. Cazenave, J.-L. & Ferrand, Y. 2019. IBIS. DOI: 10.1111/ibi.12657. VIEW

Numerous birds species migrate to warmer regions during winter. The following spring, they return to their breeding grounds to lay eggs and raise their chicks. Some birds undertake this journey in one uninterrupted flight, while others stop on the way (Alerstam 2011). The Eurasian Woodcock (Scolopax rusticola), for example, alternates between nightly flights of several hundred kilometers and stopovers for one of several days (Crespo et al. 2016). This pattern raises a question: how do these birds decide to fly or stopover? To answer this question, a group of ornithologists tracked the spring migration of 87 Woodcocks.

The researchers caught the birds during February and March on the British Isles and in France. They then followed the Woodcocks, equipped with tiny geolocators, to their breeding grounds in central Russia. The analyses of this tracking data revealed that migration movements were influenced by three main factors: temperature, wind and atmospheric conditions.

Figure 1 Locations of tracked Woodcocks during their spring migration to Russia.

Woodcocks avoided to migrate when temperatures were below 0°C. As the temperature increased, more and more birds took to the skies. Above 11°C, about 80% of the tracked birds would be migrating. Wind also played an important role in migratory movements. Woodcocks tended to wait for northward winds, taking advantage of these tailwinds on their journey north (Liechti 2006). Interestingly, there was also an effect of eastward winds. Perhaps these winds convey information about rainy weather and atmospheric instability? And this brings us to the final factor: atmospheric conditions. In general, woodcocks migrated when the atmosphere was more stable. Possibly, these stable conditions encourage the birds to migrate because they will avoid flying into storms. More research is needed to explain the relevance of this third factor (Shamoun-Baranes et al. 2017).

Figure 2 The probability of migration increases with air temperature and northward winds.

Breeding success
The researchers also evaluated the impact of migration on breeding success. Because Woodcocks are so-called income breeders (i.e. they use local resources during the breeding season), we can expect little effect of migration on breeding success (Stephens et al. 2009). And indeed, the analyses showed that breeding success strongly correlated with local climate and not with the conditions encountered during migration. Hence, the authors concluded that “although weather conditions during spring migration affect migration movements, they do not have a major influence on subsequent breeding success.”


Alerstam, T. 2011. Optimal bird migration revisited. Journal of Ornithology, 152: 5-23. VIEW

Crespo, A., Rodrigues, M., Telletxea, I., Ibáñez, R., Díez, F., Tobar, J. F., & Arizaga, J. 2016. No habitat selection during spring migration at a meso-scale range across mosaic landscapes: A case study with the woodcock (Scolopax rusticola). PloS One, 11: e0149790. VIEW

Liechti, F. 2006. Birds: blowin’by the wind? Journal of Ornithology, 147: 202-211. VIEW

Shamoun-Baranes, J., Liechti, F., & Vansteelant, W. M. G. 2017. Atmospheric conditions create freeways, detours and tailbacks for migrating birds. Journal of Comparative Physiology A, 203: 509-529. VIEW

Stephens, P. A., Boyd, I. L., McNamara, J. M., & Houston, A. I. 2009. Capital breeding and income breeding: their meaning, measurement, and worth. Ecology, 90: 2057-2067. VIEW

About the author

Jente Ottenburghs is the BOU’s Journal Publicity Officer and resident science writer. A postdoc at Uppsala University in Sweden, he is a curious evolutionary biologist with a passion for writing. He obtained his PhD from Wageningen University (the Netherlands) where he studied the genetic consequences of hybridization between several goose species. Currently, he is extending this line of research at Uppsala University. Apart from his goose work, Jente manages the Avian Hybrids Project, a website and blog that gathers the scientific literature on hybridization in birds.

Jente’s personal website
View Jente’s profile on ResearchGate
Follow Jente on Twitter @Jente_O

Image credits

Top right: Eurasian Woodcock Scolopax rusticola | Jason Thompson | CC BY-SA 2.0 Flickr

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