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American Woodcock: Game Bird Profile

These mighty little birds offer a unique hunt for those willing to catch their migration flights.

American Woodcock: Game Bird Profile

Woodcock. Swamp Partridge. Timberdoodle. Mud bat. Bogsucker. No matter what you call these charming little birds, they provide excellent dog work and a wonderful wingshooting experience. (Photo By: Lindaimke-/

As my hunting partner and I approached the motionless German shorthair, I looked down and spotted a well-camouflaged little bird sitting still about two feet in front of the dog’s nose. My first thought was, “This is going to be easy.” After the bird flushed and zigged-zagged its way safely through the thick cover, my tune quickly changed to, “How in the heck am I supposed to hit that?”

I was experiencing my first woodcock hunt 20 miles outside of metropolitan Tulsa, Oklahoma—not exactly an area known for woodcock hunting success, especially 30 years ago. As an employee of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation’s information section, earlier in the week I had overheard one of the waterfowl biologists mention woodcock hunting the following weekend. I was startled. Surely, he didn’t mean those little birds that they hunt up in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, did he?

When pressed, he revealed he had a local honey hole that should have a few birds because of a recent northern front and some rain that had chased away our drought of the last few weeks. When asked if I would like to come, I reluctantly agreed. After all, I had been hunting quail in the state for 20 years and had never even seen a woodcock as far as I knew. But having nothing better to do and always willing to chase a bird dog with shotgun in hand, I said what the heck. A few hours of trudging through some of the thickest stuff I’d ever hunted and four fat woodcock in the bag later, I realized I was forever hooked.

About Woodcock  

If you’ve never seen a woodcock, they are interesting looking little birds that have an awkward way about them on the ground that belies just how quick and elusive they can be when in the air. The first time I saw one, I had expected it to look like a bobwhite with a long beak, but that turned out to be fairly inaccurate. Their feathers are designed to give them somewhat of a mottled appearance, making them very hard to see on a leaf-covered ground, which protects them from predators.

american woodcock feeding in soil
Woodcock are migratory birds and prefer damp environments rich with earthworms. They use their unique long beaks to dig up this primary food source. (Photo By: Lev Frid/

The woodcock’s long, cylindrical beak is probably it’s most unique feature. It uses that beak to probe in the damp ground for earthworms, its primary food source. That’s why the little birds are nearly always found where it is damp and where there is at least some open ground for probing. Along with earthworms, woodcock also eat ants, flies, beetles, grasshoppers, crickets, and insect larvae of various types.

One of the most interesting things about woodcock—and what differentiates them from the common upland birds often hunted over pointing dogs—is their migratory behavior. In the fall, they begin the long migration from their northern breeding grounds, passing through state after state to their southern wintering grounds. In spring and summer, the birds breed in their northern grounds in northern New England and the upper Midwest with many making their summer homes in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan and from Maine and New York north into Canada. In the fall, they fly to lowlands from the Carolinas, west to central Oklahoma and eastern Texas and Louisiana. For folks further west than that, seeing a woodcock is a rare treat indeed.

Speaking of treats, don't miss our favorite woodcock recipe!!

In their spring mating grounds, which occasionally includes areas as far south as Oklahoma, woodcock do their courting late in the evening. Making a peenting sound while dancing on the ground, the male flies straight up into the air as high as 200 or 300 feet. This behavior must impress the females, as they seek out the males on their singing grounds. A short time after breeding, the female will lay her eggs—usually four—near the singing ground. After an incubation of about 20 days, chicks are born well developed and can leave the nest only a few hours after hatching.

As far as table fare goes, woodcock meat is quite unique. The birds, because they are migratory, display an opposite flesh pattern to bobwhite quail. Because quail walk and run around on the ground most of the time, they have white meat on their breast, then darker, somewhat more tough meat on the legs. Woodcock, which fly hundreds of miles but only walk around when feeding, have large, dark-meat breasts (not quite as dark as a dove) with smaller, white legs. They’re quite tasty and loved by many who enjoy darker meat.

Upland bird hunter holding american woodcock
Since woodcock fly more than walk, they have large, dark-meat breasts, making them exceptional table fare. (Photo By: Chris Ingram)

Woodcock Dogs  

Of course, if hunting woodcock with dogs wasn’t effective—and a blast, I might add—we wouldn’t be talking about them in these pages. While some hunters choose to hunt woodcock with flushing dogs, including various spaniels and Labs, I think the real thrill comes from hunting the unique birds over well-trained pointing dogs.

In the woodcock woods, you’ll see pointing dogs ranging from English pointers to Brittanys to everything in between. German shorthaired pointers are especially popular for woodcock hunting and can be seen in the woodcock woods from northern Michigan all the way down to southern Louisiana. I even took my field-bred Irish setter to the woodcock woods at the age of four and she did quite well finding and pointing the little birds, despite never having seen one before.

american woodcock with pointing dog
If hunting American woodcock with a pointing breed, you'll want to keep your dog working close in the tight cover. (Photo By: Mark Chesnut)

The important thing for woodcock hunting success with a pointing dog is having a dog that is willing to work fairly close—generally much closer than, say, one you would hunt wild bobwhites with in western Kansas. You won’t be covering as much area hunting woodcock, and you need to be able to keep up with your dogs. That said, a big-running pointing dog that will hold his birds can still yield successful hunting, provided you have a way of knowing where he is when he is away from you and on point. If he’s on point 200 yards away in thick brush, you better have a locator collar on him or you’re in for a long afternoon. Most good bird dogs are able to adjust to different types of cover quite well, so don’t automatically decide you can’t run your normally big-running pointer in the woodcock woods. You’ll find out soon enough after turning him loose if it’s going to be a good fit.

Woodcock Guns & Loads

Since you’re going to be trudging through some really thick stuff, a lighter gun is going to let you hunt longer without getting worn out. Woodcock aren’t really hard to kill when you can actually hit them. Typically, that means a 20- or even 28-gauge, usually with light loads of number 7.5 or 8 lead shot (7/8 or 1 ounce for 20, ¾ ounce for 28) will do. Of course, if you happen to be hunting in an area where lead shot is prohibited, nontoxic shot is required.

As far as equipment is concerned, hunting woodcock doesn’t take much specialized equipment that you don’t already have for hunting other birds. While many dyed-in-the-wool, old-time woodcock hunters still prefer a bell or a beeper collar, others get by just fine with the same GPS tracking collars they utilize when hunting quail or pheasants. One thing that is critical is, because of the kind of cover you’ll be hunting, you’ll definitely need some kind of eye protection. Last year while hunting woodcock and grouse on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a sharp stick to my right cornea ended my cross-country hunt early and paved the way for a midnight emergency room visit.

One important equipment note: Since woodcock are classified as migratory birds instead of an upland species, federal law requires that a shotgun be able to hold no more than three shells when in the field.

Woodcock Hunting Strategies

Few people have spent more time in the woodcock woods than Dennis Stachewicz, owner and operator of Aspen Thicket Grouse Dogs on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. That’s because grouse and woodcock habitat greatly overlap, and he’s out chasing grouse the majority of the season.  

“To me, the best thing about hunting woodcock is the numbers,” Stachewicz said. “I think that’s everybody’s best thing about hunting woodcock. They fill in the gaps when you’re grouse hunting. You can go 25 to 30 minutes between grouse contacts, but when the woodcock are in, you’re getting one every couple of minutes—and that creates a lot of action. I always jokingly say that if it weren’t for woodcock, there would be a lot less grouse hunters.”

bird hunting in forest
Woodcock and ruffed grouse habitat often overlap, providing bird hunters and their dogs an opportunity for a mixed bag hunt. (Photo By: Chris Ingram)

Stachewicz said woodcock habitat, regardless of where you live or where you hunt them, always has one thing in common. Without that key element, you’re just not going to be successful. “You’ve got to remember, woodcock eat worms,” he said. “So, you’ve got to have some moisture in the soil. Particularly up by me, where we have a lot of sandy soil, you can go to the traditional aspen areas but if it’s on sandy soil and there aren’t any tag alder runs or any wet areas close by, you’re not going to find birds. You need to look for damp soil. You need to find the stuff that makes a noise when your boot walks in it. A good rule of thumb is that a quarter inch of your boot is in the mud and it’s making a sopping noise.”

Stachewicz says that regardless of where you hunt, there are some other types of habitat that woodcock prefer. And if you understand the favored habitat of U.P. woodcock, you’ll have an idea where to look when hunting them in other states, since they just might be the same birds. “The primary stuff that I look for when hunting woodcock are very young aspens in the five- to seven-year age class that are in a low-lying area with some moisture present,” he said. “It serves two purposes for them. Number one, that five- to seven-year aspen class is very thick and it provides a lot of cover for them from avian predators. And then the low-lying areas within it are where they feed. Secondary cover for woodcock when the aspen areas are dry, I go right to the tag alder, like the creek bottoms, piney areas adjacent to the tag alders—that’s really been the key is those alder runs because they’re very damp, and the creek bottoms have water in them.”

american woodcock hunting habitat
Focus on wet areas when looking for woodcock. Alder runs, swamp edges, and creek bottoms provide the soft, moist soils where woodcock can probe for food. (Photo By: Mark Chesnut)

Stachewicz said that while hunters in other parts of the country that harbor good woodcock numbers might have different trees and brush species, they should still be looking for the same general “types” of areas when hunting these fleet-flying little birds. “Generally, you’ll be looking for a combination of a couple of things,” he said. “First and foremost, I’m looking for very young habitat. I’m looking for perhaps a creek bottom, or pond, or marshy areas adjacent to that. And I’m also looking for, believe it or not, some type of openings because generally in the spring when they do their mating they always do it in areas with openings so they can do their display. And if they’re hatched there, they generally return to the same area every year.”

When checking out a new hunting location, Stachewicz said a dead giveaway that you have woodcock in the area is the ground will have many splashes—the white marks where the woodcock have excreted their waste. “You generally see the splash when the flight birds come in,” he said. “They’ll come in and rest over the period of a couple of days. And when they’re resting, they’re pretty much in the same spot, so you’ll see a bunch of splash in the same area. Another thing you can look for is if you’re walking along an old logging road, if you look around the puddles and see a bunch of holes in the mud where they’re drilling for worms with their beaks, that’s a really good indicator.”

american woodcock splash
Get ready to raise your gun when you begin seeing woodcock droppings, known to hunters as "splash". (Photo By: Chris Ingram)

In the end, while woodcock aren’t as popular a game bird as, say, bobwhite quail or ring-necked pheasants, they provide an excellent hunting opportunity for hunters in a wide swath of the eastern United States. If you haven’t hunted them before, get out there and give it a try. You might just discover another great way to enjoy time afield with your favorite shotgun and prized gun dog.

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