My first woodcock provided me with an entire season's shooting. I hunted this bird regularly after school all one October, and on each occasion we went through the same routine. After I had flushed and missed him a couple of times in the birches where he lived, he would take to the treetops and disappear somewhere down in the big woods near by. There the shooting would end. I never did find exactly where he went in the woods, but he would be back in the birches waiting for me the next trip.
Eventually I got him. One afternoon the woodcock made the wrong turn at the wrong instant and fetched up solidly with a load of No. 10s. I raced forward to where he fell, expecting at any moment to see him jump again and fly off into the woods, but I found him sprawled awkwardly on the curled and crinkly birch leaves. I picked him up gently, smoothed his rumpled feathers and gazed at him a long time. It wasn't regret that I felt. This was my first woodcock and I was excited and proud to have brought him down, but I did realize that there was something personal between us. That little timberdoodle and I had become the best of enemies.
The woodcock is strictly an oddity. He is a shore bird gone astray. The granddaddy of all woodcock apparently got tired of having wet feet all the time and took to the hills, deserting all his long-legged teeter-tailed cousins along the beaches and marshes and moving into the unnatural habitat of the upland bird. He has also gone nocturnal to a large degree. Some folks call him an owl snipe, and in the old days Southerners used to hunt him on his night feeding grounds by the light of a flaming pine knot. He seems happiest in the short interim of half-light between daylight and dark. Then and at night is when he does his migrating, something which has left many an uninformed hunter bewildered. Woodcock might be swarming in a favorite cover one evening and the next morning have vanished, as mysterious and elusive as will-o'-the-wisps.
Of course he's not strictly nocturnal. He does a lot of daytime feeding—several times I have shot a woodcock with a half-swallowed worm in his bill—and most hunters know he is a long way from being helpless, considering the way he can handle himself on the wing in bright light. He's versatile, that's all.
Physically, even, he is an oddity. Not only are his eyes arranged in a peculiar fashion near the top and back of his head, but his ears are located forward of the eyes. Instead of carrying his ears behind the eyes like all other respectable creatures, his actually lie between the eyes and the base of the bill. It has long been a matter of conjecture whether a robin sees or hears a worm when he cocks his head. Nobody will ever settle that except a robin, I suppose, but there must be some reason why a woodcock hears some kind of rumblings or churnings going on in the earth beneath him before he commences to probe. And probing is the reason he has a bill so unique, not just in length, but in the way it is constructed. He can ram it into the ground to the ears; then the tip can be opened and closed at will while the remainder stays tightly shut, much to the dismay of many an earthworm. And, being an individualist, he has his top jaw rather than the lower one hinged.
The woodcock is a solitary and seclusive creature. Combine this with his known oddities, his strictly out-of-character personality, and he immediately becomes a bird of mystery subject to all manner of speculation and fancy. The theory has been seriously advanced that a hen woodcock carries her young about by grasping them between her thighs and flying off with them. But a woodcock's legs are simply not constructed for any such maneuver. The woodcock is an imp, that's all. One of his most delightful characteristics is this ability to make people scratch their heads in wonder.
Another fantasy commonly heard is that a woodcock subsists solely by sucking mud. His diet, of course, is earthworms, which, to my way of thinking, would be less desirable than good, clean mud, but then I'm not a woodcock.
One of the most absorbing exhibitions in all outdoors is the spring mating dance of the male woodcock. He selects a relatively open spot for his dance. It may be a forest glade, or a well-cropped pasture. At any rate, it is a spot clear of brush and high grass. Here on spring evenings, when the light is commencing to fail, he puts on his show. Although his dancing ground may be two or three hundred yards from the hardwood thicket where the female bird is nesting, his performance does something for him because she flies to him on the dancing ground to mate, then returns to her thicket. However, whether he is an optimist or just likes to show off I don't know, but he continues his dance nightly, long after the eggs have been fertilized and the hen bird is concerned solely with her maternal duties.
For a while he struts about pompously, his little tail erect and spread and his wings drooping, pausing occasionally to emit a sharp buzz—like the sound of a high-voltage current sparking across a gap—twisting his head abruptly as he does so. After going through these clownish antics for a few moments, he suddenly takes off at a fairly low angle and spirals high into the evening sky. His wings whistle and he climbs until he is just a dot far overhead. As he nears the top of this flight, his wing motion and accompanying whistling sound become interrupted, coming in spurts in ever-increasing tempo; then suddenly he turns earthward, letting go all holds, and descends in abrupt, erratic darts from side to side. Now comes the most unbelievable part of the whole affair. This is the song. The characteristic wing whistle is replaced by a sudden burst of music, filling the evening air with a series of melodic notes, as clear and ringing as though struck from tiny bells. Then, as abruptly as he departed a minute or two previous, he swoops down and alights gently in the same clearing, in the fading light, appearing gnomelike with his owl eyes and false-face bill. Again he struts around awkwardly, giving each buzz everything he has with an emphatic twist of the head, then takes off again in the same pattern of flight and musical descent. This performance continues until almost dark; then, as though exhausted by all his effort, he squats, his head sunk on his shoulders and his long bill pointed obliquely toward the ground, and goes to sleep.
To anyone familiar with the woodcock in October, this entire show is a contradiction. No one who has hunted him through the autumn hills would believe the woodcock capable of making such dainty music. But that is the essence of this strange little bird, to be and to do anything but what would normally be expected of him, and that is probably his outstanding quality as a game bird. As surprising as he may be in all these respects, he is never quite so surprising as when he jumps suddenly out of the dry leaves at the hunter's feet and darts off across the alder tops. Sometimes I think he surprises himself.