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Telling on Timberdoodles

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Published on: Oct. 2, 1997

Last revision: Oct. 27, 2010

Though they nest here and are common in Missouri, woodcock are rarely seen by all but early-season quail hunters and a few die-hard timberdoodle hunters. Their love of dense cover and damp ground puts them outside the realm of the casual birdwatcher.

There are two woodcock - the American woodcock and the Eurasian woodcock. With their long bills, their eyes set high on their heads and their ears located between their eyes and their bill, they are uniquely outfitted for probing in moist soil for earthworms and other food. They are affectionately called "timberdoodles," a name oddly fitting for a bird with such an unusual appearance.

Woodcock are shorebirds and are related to the sandpiper family (their closest relative may be the snipe). The American woodcock is most numerous east of the Mississippi River. Unlike other sandpipers they live in uplands. One researcher noted they like bottomland hardwood forests with thickets during the day and, at night, seek out fields with low wet spots.

Timberdoodles are mostly migratory birds in Missouri, but they do reside here in spring and early summer. I have watched them on warm spring evenings as the males fly to great heights, then spiral to earth in the effort to attract a mate. The birds seem to be most active between sunset and dark, but this display also takes place at dawn, and once on the ground the birds walk about making a sound described as "peenting." The males will spar with other males that dare intrude upon this display, ultimately mating with as many females as possible.

Woodcock are not widely hunted in Missouri. In one recent year it was estimated that 3,300 hunters bagged about 7,000 woodcock. Woodcock hunters only put in about two percent of the days afield that Missouri quail hunters expend. Some years the numbers of people hunting just for woodcock doubles; participation seems to fluctuate, probably in relation to how good the hunting is.

Not all woodcock hunters pursue the birds with blued steel and burnished walnut; some use long-handled fishing nets. One Michigan enthusiast called it "catch and release hunting." A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service publication notes that "Woodcock are difficult to count because of their cryptic coloration, small size, and preference for dense vegetation." One way migratory bird regulators count them is with singing ground surveys and the collection of woodcock wings from birds taken by hunters. But,

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