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A CRUEL TEST OF NATURE
Robert F. Jones
February 15, 1988
A freak snowstorm threatened the finicky woodcock
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February 15, 1988

A Cruel Test Of Nature

A freak snowstorm threatened the finicky woodcock

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The first of the covers drew blank, except for a solitary grouse that got up wild, 30 yards out. Then another grouse appeared, in thick stuff a hundred yards on. So the king at least had weathered the storm, as I knew he would. As we entered the second cover—a stand of young aspen on a sidehill, studded with feathery pines—Luke started getting "birdy." His tail wagged faster, his ears cocked back, his ruff rose slightly, and he suddenly seemed to glow even blacker than usual, as if he were carved of obsidian. His pace slowed, and he nosed forward inch-by-inch, shuddering. Then the birds got up—two woodcocks together, a straightaway twisting double, but I didn't even raise the shotgun. For all I knew, they were the sole survivors of the storm, in my home cover at least.

The next cover produced a single bird, a big, plump female by the length of her bill and the long, sweeping primaries on her wingtips (hens of the species are noticeably larger than the cocks and have longer bills). She caught us both by surprise, and I tangled my feet spinning to see her. She blasted strongly across an open field and pitched into dense cover across a roaring brook. I marked her down closely. We could always jump her again if we chose.

We entered the fourth and final cover of the afternoon with high hopes and blood in our eye. So far, it had been a typical woodcock swing, the same pattern of flushes we had encountered before the storm. I was certain these were resident birds. Luke had poked briefly, out of dutiful habit, into a flight cover along our route and frisked it thoroughly, producing nothing. The last time we hit this final cover, two days before the snow, it had held four birds, one of which we killed. There should be three left. We went in.

It was a long, low alder thicket, rising uphill from a brook to fan out at the top into young hardwoods still bright with color. Down near the brook, Luke jumped a woodcock just where we knew one should be, but it got a tree between us, and I didn't shoot. A short way uphill, still in thick stuff, another got up—and I couldn't get on it. Luke looked back at me with his customary frown. O.K., I would try harder next time.

Up near the top, out of the alders now, into the hardwoods, the third bird rose from the threat of Luke's hustle. It blew out toward the open, into the sunlight, twisting like a scatback, and I shot. Like the closing of a prayer book, the woodcock folded and thumped down, dead, among the maple whips beside a bubbling rivulet.

Luke fetched the bird and dropped it neatly at my feet. I smoothed the rumpled russet feathers, pulled a wet leaf from the long, flexible bill and gently slid the plump, warm body into my game pocket. Our worst fears had not been realized; now the nightmare was over.

But not the paradox: We love the woodcock, all gamebirds for that matter—and love to kill them.

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