Utility Birds

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Published on: Sep. 2, 2007

Last revision: Dec. 3, 2010

The bird rose from the crisp leaves between the dog and me almost in slow motion. Its wing-beats made a metallic twittering sound. It was so close I could feel the breeze from its wings. Five feet off the ground, it turned and seemed to look me in the eye before pitching horizontally through a tangle of grapevines. My shot interrupted the spell, but not the bird’s flight.

Another day, hunkered at the edge of a plowed cornfield that held an inch or two of standing rainwater, I spied a dozen sleek forms 100 yards out, slicing down the north wind toward me with breathtaking agility. I stood up and fired twice. The skein of birds parted like a curtain, sweeping around and past me, without apparent injury.

Yet another day, in a cattail marsh with small watery clearings, my quarry stubbornly declined to fly, preferring to skulk among knee-high grass hummocks. Whenever one of the birds did leave the ground, however, it rewarded my patience with an easy shot. My game vest grew heavy.

If these scenarios seem unfamiliar, it is probably because you have never pursued woodcock, snipe or rails. Of all Missouri’s game birds, these are perhaps the least hunted. That’s a shame because each species provides a challenge.

As a bonus, pursuing them takes you to places you otherwise might never visit and fills otherwise empty spaces in autumn’s hunting calendar. Hunting woodcock, snipe and rail also offers a chance to sharpen rusty wing-shooting skills and an excuse to scout new hunting areas.

If you get the urge to take your favorite scattergun afield before big flights of ducks and geese arrive, this trio of what I call “utility birds” may be just what you need.

Woodcock

Also known as “timberdoodles” or “bogsuckers,” these stout but oddly handsome birds are mottled buff and black. They make their living by poking long, sensitive beaks deep into the soil in search of their primary food, earthworms. For this specialized lifestyle, they have eyes set far back on their heads, allowing them to watch for trouble while probing for food.

The quality of woodcock cover can be gauged by how much grief it causes you and your dog. Timberdoodles favor low-lying areas where the soil is moist and loamy, but you may also find them amid blackberries, wild roses, gooseberries and cat briers in uplands. Clearcuts between 10 and 25 years old are excellent woodcock habitat, as are

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