|The American woodcock, Scolopax minor, is also called the "timberdoodle". It is classified as a shore bird, but it has long given up the shores and mudflats to live and thrive in Wisconsin's upland woods. The early statistics on woodcock population in Wisconsin is unknown, but it is thought that there were relatively few woodcock in the state due to the dense forestation. Market hunting and long open seasons during the nineteenth century took a heavy toll on what population did exist. In 1900 the federal Lacey Act banned interstate sale of game, and in 1918 the Migratory Bird Treaty Act placed federal regulations on the woodcock. These two acts and the combination of logging and extensive forest fires created conditions that allowed woodcock population to recover and even thrive.
Sitting on the forest floor, the woodcock's natural camouflage makes it almost impossible to see. Its body feathers are cinnamon in color, with the back and wings patterned in bars of dark brown, gray, and gold, resembling dead leaves. The breast and underwings are beige and the head and back of the neck are black with feint lateral stripes. The tail is very short, rufous colored and edged in light gray. The woodcock is a small bird, with the adult female weighing 7 ounces and the male at 6 ounces. They average 8-10 inches in length and this total includes a 2½-inch long bill. This bill is perfectly adapted for probing the ground for earthworms, its favorite food, and the tip is prehensile and equipped with special tactile cells to allow the bird to probe easily in soft mud and pick up worms. The neck is very short, and the head is virtually upside down when compared to other animals. The brain lies upside down in the bottom of the skull. The large eyes are set far back on the head in order to see well while feeding face down. The ear holes are below and slightly in front of the eyes, instead of behind the eyes as most birds. This body is set on slender legs with long toes. The woodcock most closely resembles a snipe, but snipes have longitudinal striping on the back and the head and are most often found around ponds and freshwater marshes. When flushed, woodcock fly in a "zigzag" pattern and make a twittering whistle caused by three stiff, narrow outer wing feathers, during their sporadic flight.
Woodcock mate in March and April in Wisconsin, and the call of the male's nasal "peent" call can be heard echoing through the woods. Males begin displaying on their wintering grounds, keep performing during spring migration and continue the courtship ritual after arrival in Wisconsin. Just before dark, males perform on their "singing grounds", which is often an open field or forest clearing. Each male announces his presence with a buzzing call or "peent". He continues peenting while bobbing his head and strutting around the site. Suddenly, the male spirals upward to a height of over 200 feet, and in less than a minute, he spirals back down to earth, zigzagging and swooping all the while making a musical chirping sound. When he lands, he continues to peent and, if these antics have attracted a female, they will mate. The male woodcock will make a dozen or more flights on a single evening and will breed with several different females. After mating, the female builds the nest, which is only a small shallow depression on the forest floor, close to a male's "singing ground". Favorite nesting sites are brushy corners of pastures and underbrush in woody edges and thickets, usually near a fairly well cleared area and always close to food. Most nests are located beside a log or stump, under a small tree or within fallen brush.
The woodcock's favorite food is overwhelmingly earthworms, which make up 80% of its diet, and an adult can eat its weight or more in earthworms within 24 hours. They feed in moist soil in forest openings, alder bottoms, and aspen alder stands. The birds probe the soil with their highly sensitive bill to feel for earthworms. Often, the presence of woodcocks is revealed by probe holes and white dropping close together on the ground. Beetle larvae, ants, and other invertebrates make up another 10% of the diet, but these foods are eaten mainly in times of drought, when earthworms are deep below the forest floor. Woodcock use their long bill to move dead leaves or strip bark in search of food. Small seeds and berries of plants such as violets, alder, blackberry and sedges make up the remainder of the diet. Woodcock feed mostly during daylight hours and early in the morning, but they may also feed at twilight. During the day, they often feed and rest in bushy alder and young aspen thickets and roost at night in forest clearings.
Unique among upland birds, the woodcock is migratory, perhaps best explained by the frozen ground being impenetrable to probing for earthworm eating. Most of the woodcock, that nest in Wisconsin, winter in Arkansas, Louisiana, and southwest Mississippi, in the flood plains and backwaters of the Mississippi River delta region. Beginning in late January or early February, the woodcock travels north to its breeding grounds and it may take 4-6 weeks to arrive. Most have reached these grounds by mid-March, but the timing of the spring snowmelt can vary the arrival time. Woodcock nests are found in a variety of places, but are most often found in young forests with some scattered openings and poorly drained land. An abundance of ground litter is also necessary to help in concealing nesting birds. Woodcock are territorial only during the breeding season, when males stake out their singing grounds and chase off intruding males. During migration, some woodcock form loose flocks of several hundred birds, but it is also common to see them migrating alone. Domestic dogs, skunks, opossums, snakes and crows prey upon woodcock and often eat their eggs and destroy nests. Cats will catch and eat birds but seldom eat eggs, and many young are lost to cold weather, drought and flooding. Adult woodcock fall prey to owls, hawks, and red and gray foxes, and diseases and parasites such as tapeworms, roundworms, flukes and lice. Many birds also die from collisions with cars, wires and other man-made structures. Since most woodcock mortality comes from causes other than hunting, legal harvests don't seem to have a negative impact on state population. In fact, information covering the past 25 years shows no significant trend in woodcock population, either up or down, and the numbers appear to be relatively stable.
Currently Wisconsin has about 11,000 square miles of good woodcock habitat, with over 80% of this area found in the northern 1/3 of the state. This area contains some of the most productive woodcock breeding grounds in the U.S., with summer densities of up to 100 birds per square mile. Wisconsin probably contributes over 750,000 woodcock annually to the flyway population, and the annual fall flight through Wisconsin totals at least 1,500,000 birds. Wisconsin's woodcock season dates change each year, but take place somewhere between the 2nd week of September and the 2nd week of November, with a daily bag limit of 5 and a possession limit of 10 birds.
Because the woodcock is a migratory bird, the federal government plays a part in setting the hunting seasons and limits, much as they do for waterfowl. Seasons might be long, but normally hunting is only hot for a few weeks, and many consider woodcock as a bonus bird for grouse hunters. Places where woodcock are found are aptly called coverts, because the veteran woodcock hunter is extremely covert in his efforts to keep these locations a secret. If you can't get an old-timer to show you a favorite spot, look for wet ground in lowlands with many small alders and other short trees and brush. Areas along creeks and around beaver dams often produce timberdoodles, but don't look for areas where underbrush is thick, as the birds don't like to sit in dense grass. You might find "chalk", or white droppings, and bore holes in an area that looks good, and even if you don't flush birds today, try the spot as often as you can. A good spot for woodcock today will be a good spot for woodcock tomorrow, and the birds will probably show up sooner or later. Notoriously tight holding sitters, when flushed, a woodcock will most often tower straight into the air to just over the brush cover and then fly straight away from the hunter. Typically, this bird will not fly very far before landing, and you can often flush the same bird again and again if necessary. Often the bird will start to land just as you pull the trigger, and it is hard to tell if it went down on its own or because you hit it. As with grouse, you should always follow up shots in thick cover, and always approach a downed bird as if it is alive and well. Hunting woodcock with a close working hunting dog can result in upland bird hunting at its finest. Without a dog, the hunt can be very frustrating, but when flights are heavy, a seasoned hunter can do quite well on his own. The best solo strategy is to walk slowly, often starting and stopping, thru prime cover, but the stops have to be a little longer and more often to flush a timberdoodle than with grouse. You have to try to keep focused even though the walks between shots may be long, and frequent breaks will help you stay alert. It's critical for a good woodcock hunter to keep a journal, as these birds are surprisingly punctual and may show up in the same covert year after year within days of the same date.