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Timber! (Doodles)

Mar 10, 2010

I spent a wonderful hour recently exercising my golden retriever, Willa, at one of my favorite autumn woodcock hunting spots. The place, which was devoid of “timberdoodles” the previous Friday, was alive with them on Monday. Willa was in dog heaven as she flushed birds left and right, reveling in their special, birdy scent. We went back at dusk Tuesday and sat quietly in the truck to witness male woodcocks spiraling upward until they disappeared, then made death-defying zigzagging dives back to the little clearings where they strutted and made their distinctive nasal “peent” call for timberdoodettes.

Late in March last year, I found a hen woodcock on her nest at the same area. I didn’t know this species ever nested in Missouri, but there was the proof, including one egg the hen apparently had decided was not going to pan out and removed from her clutch.

Of all Missouri’s game birds, I think the woodcock is my favorite. For one thing, I can see them at several locations within half an hour’s drive of home. For another, these mysterious birds give me pleasure during both their spring and fall migrations.

Spring offers the opportunity to contemplate how wonderfully weird they are, with eyeballs perched atop their heads for a 360-degree view of the world. Their ears--such as they are--can detect the slurp of an earthworm crawling through the soil, and their prehensile beaks are perfectly made for extracting those squirmy morsels, which make up virtually their entire diet.

Fall is a whole ‘nother experience. Willa and I hunt them in October, when their brambly haunts are tinged with scarlet and gilded by frost. The dense thickets they inhabit are full of wickedly curved blackberry thorns that tug at pants, jackets and occasionally ears. These distractions, plus the woodcock’s erratic flight, ensure that I will shoot AT many more timberdoodles than I bag. That is just as well, since the daily limit is just three.

Beyond their value as hunting quarry, table fare and reminders that magic still exists in the world, woodcocks are favorites of writers because their unique physique and habits have spawned such a multitude of colorful names--night partridge, bogsucker and mud bat, to name but a few.

When I think of woodcock cover, I think of a low, moist area with an abundance of willow or cottonwood saplings and dense shrubby cover at eye level. Take a seat at the edge of such an area at sunset and listen for male woodcocks’ reedy “peent!” Then look skyward and wait for one to begin his aerobatics. The window of opportunity to see this show is short--another couple of weeks or so before most of the birds move on north. It’s a great way to spend an early spring evening!

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