A dazzling white ghost

- EN - DE- FR- IT
The woodcock is almost perfectly camouflaged on the ground thanks to its bark-li
The woodcock is almost perfectly camouflaged on the ground thanks to its bark-like plumage. photo © Jari Peltomäki

The woodcock’s habits are discreet and nocturnal. A true ghost of the forest, it is rarely seen. We now know that its tail feathers are the purest white in the bird world.

Sempach. - The woodcock is active at night and lives secluded in damp forests. A veritable ghost of the forest, it is usually discovered by scaring it off on a hiking trail: a brown-spotted bird the size of a pigeon. In mating season, the species is a little easier to spot: its courtship flight, the "croule", is accompanied by typical calls. In order to be visible to potential mates, both males and females display their white tail tips.

These feathers have a special feature: they are the purest white of all avifauna. A team of researchers, including Lukas Jenni, feather specialist and former Scientific Director of the Swiss Ornithological Institute, recently discovered this. Because of their structure, these feathers reflect light like no other.

This discovery shows just how many fascinating things there still are to discover in our native avifauna. The woodcock is classified as vulnerable on Switzerland’s red list of threatened species. It is a priority species for conservation. Over the last 30 years, it has virtually disappeared from lowland areas, while its population is still stable higher up. Forest densification and disturbance are possible causes of this disappearance.

Moreover, the woodcock is still huntable in Switzerland. The estimated 1000-4000 males in the Swiss breeding population are to be compared with the 1500-2500 woodcock shot each autumn. Although these are probably mainly migratory birds from Northern and Eastern Europe, conservation of this species requires, in addition to habitat enhancement, the implementation of hunting restrictions in Switzerland. There is talk, for example, of extending the protection period to mid-November or reducing shooting quotas. We will then be able to continue admiring the purest white of our country’s birdlife - provided the timid forest spirit is willing to show itself.


Dunning, J., A. Patil, L. D’Alba, A. L. Bond, G. Debruyn, A. Dhinojwala, M. Shawkey & L. Jenni (2023): How woodcocks produce the most brilliant white plumage patches among the birds. Journal of the Royal Society, Interface 20: 20220920. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsif­.2022.0920 .

Bohnenstengel, T., V. Rocheteau, M. Delmas, N. Vial, E. Rey, B. Homberger & Y. Gonseth (2020): Projet national sur la Bécasse des bois. Rapport final. Info fauna, Neuchâtel.