Hunters nicknamed the American woodcock the “Timberdoodle” for its unique, rocking walk through the woods in search of its favorite prey, the earthworm.
The woodcock is a chunky, quail-sized bird with a long bill and stilted legs. These unusual birds migrate through Kentucky in their largest numbers from late October to mid-November, pushed from Michigan and other northern areas by the winter’s freeze until they reach their wintering grounds along the Gulf Coast.
Woodcock offer a serious challenge for bird hunters in search of game to supplement their quail and grouse hunting. Woodcock favor thick, overgrown cover found in swampy areas and along creek banks. Their brown and black camouflage is so effective that having a good pointing dog is necessary for hunting success.
When flushed, the woodcock darts through thick cover with ease, making every shot a difficult one. This is why woodcock hunters favor light, smaller gauge shotguns that come to the shoulder quickly and are easy to carry during a long day of walking.
Don’t expect crowds if you go woodcock hunting—fewer than 1,000 people try this challenging sport in Kentucky each year.
Woodcock are an unusual bird in many respects. They actually are members of the shorebird family—the reason for their stilted legs—that took to the woods instead of the shoreline. The tips of their bills can move independently, allowing the bird to drive its bill into the ground and then grasp a buried earthworm. Sensitive nerves in this bird’s bill allow it to detect the worms.
The ability to probe the ground dictates the woodcock’s migration. Once the ground freezes too hard to probe for earthworms, the woodcock moves south. This is why an area can have poor hunting one day, and great hunting the next. In Kentucky, woodcock season opens October 18, to catch the beginning of the migration’s peak.
However, it is the return migration of the woodcock in mid-February that delights bird watchers. Males attract their mates by launching from the ground and flying in ever-tightening spirals until they are as much as 350 feet off the ground. Once at its highest, the male chirps before descending to its starting point.
Watch for these displays in open fields with grassy cover in late afternoon to evening. It’s an amazing show.