Utility Birds

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Published on: Sep. 2, 2007

Last revision: Dec. 3, 2010

abandoned bottomland fields that grew up in cottonwood thickets after the Great Flood of 1993.

The common thread in woodcock habitat is a closed canopy of vegetation that shades out turf grasses, leaving the ground beneath nearly bare and ready for “bogsucking.” A blanket of leaves doesn’t deter woodcock. In fact, their markings mimic fallen leaves so perfectly that a dog is almost essential for locating downed birds.

Woodcock are most likely to be found near the edges of suitable cover near open ground rather than in the middle of thickets. Evidence that woodcock are present includes white, quarter-sized droppings with brown streaks. You might also find holes in the soil where the birds have been poking around for worms.

Woodcock migrate at night, settling into thickets to rest and eat during the day. They are birds of passage, here one day and gone the next, even in the best habitat. Their wings make a distinctive metallic sound when they take flight, almost like tiny wind chimes. That, coupled with squat bodies and outrageously long beaks, makes them unlike anything else you encounter in similar habitat.

Woodcock seldom fly far when flushed. That is fortunate, because you have only about a fifty-fifty chance of getting off a shot when one flushes in thick cover. Typically, they rise just above the shrubby undergrowth, then dodge among tree branches for 20 or 30 yards before settling back down. If you can mark the spot where it lands, your chances of flushing a bird again are excellent.

The best gunning strategy is to shoot at the moment when the bird reaches the peak of its rise. This is simpler in theory than in practice, because you usually have a blackberry thorn tugging at your earlobe or a screen of saplings between you and the bird.

Shots at woodcock are fleeting, so you need a gun that is quick in hand. A light double-barrel is ideal, but any short, maneuverable shotgun will do. A flushed bird often is obscured by tree limbs by the time it is 15 yards away, so it is almost impossible for a woodcock gun to have too open a choke. Spreader loads—shotgun shells with wads designed to disperse the shot as soon as it leaves the barrel—can convert a tight-choked gun into an excellent woodcock gun.

My golden retriever loves hunting timberdoodles. However, a few dogs apparently find woodcock either uninteresting or distasteful and refuse to

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