THERE DOESN’T SEEM to be much glamour in the life of a timberdoodle (woodcock).
These peculiar-looking migratory birds are actually shorebirds that have adapted to life in the woods. The woodcock is gifted with a stiletto bill that appears way too large for its body, buggy eyes, ears positioned at odd angles on its head and a brain that essentially sits upside down in its skull.
The timberdoodle is better known as the American woodcock. It’s an early fall staple for wingshooting junkies across the upper Midwest.
It’s also a feathered treasure that appears to be widely undiscovered by Texas’s close-knit gun dog clan.
Picture a small, party balloon pumped to the max, then set free to zip around on a knuckleball path through a mangled maze of limbs, branches and briars. That’s a pretty fair description of what throwing down with a trusty scattergun on a wild-flying woodcock is all about.
It may not be the fastest bird in the woods, but it’s certainly among the toughest to hit with any consistency. The inclination to stick like glue for a pointing dog makes the woodcock all the more attractive.
Like waterfowl, woodcocks live and breed up north before winging it south for the winter. Many of the migrants wind up in Texas,
with concentrations gathering across forested areas in the southeastern part of the state, where suitable habitat is abundant.
Wildlife experts say Texas does have a small resident population of woodcocks, but the majority of the birds with the big beaks and bulbous bodies are drifters from up north. Some come from as far away as southern Canada.
“Depending on the year, woodcocks can be found from Texarkana all the way down to the Gulf Coast,” said Owen Fitzsimmons, webless migratory bird program leader with the Texas Parks Wildlife Department. “There is usually a pretty reliable population that shows up in southeast Texas. It’s tough to say just how many birds Texas sees each year because it varies with how cold and wet it gets in other states. But the more we learn about them, we are finding that there are probably more here than anybody realizes.”
The wildlife biologist is certain about one thing, however. The number of hunters who take advantage of the short, 45-day woodcock season each winter is relatively small. This year’s season got underway December 18 and runs through January 31, 2020. The daily limit is three per day, per hunter.
“It’s a very underutilized resource,” Fitzsimmons said. “For some reason it has never developed the tradition in Texas that it has in other places. It’s kind of strange, because Louisiana has a very strong woodcock hunting tradition. It just hasn’t caught on here.”
One can only speculate as to why, but it certainly isn’t for a lack of affordable places to hunt the tasty game birds.
The timberdoodle might be coined as the poor man’s bobwhite. It’s well known to sit tight for gun dogs, then flush like a single quail separated from its covey.
That’s not to say quail hunting is a sport reserved strictly for the rich guys. There just aren’t many places in Texas where you can take a rangy pointer and hunt them for free.
Woodcocks are different. There are plenty of venues where hunters can enjoy a low cost, quality hunting experience. Some of the very best woodcock hunting is found on public lands in the eastern half of the state. There, hundreds of thousands of acres of national forests and wildlife management areas can be accessed for free or with a $48 Annual Public Hunting Permit.
Plentiful as the hunting opportunities are, enjoying some success in the woodcock’s wintertime lair isn’t always easy. Chasing the birds can lead dogs and hunters through some pretty inhospitable territory. They’re found in vswamps, bogs, green briars and prickly blackberry thickets that can shred clothes, rip skin and stop a tough guy dead in his tracks.
Andrew Boatman knows a thing or two about hunting timberdoodles. Boatman is a hardcore quail hunter from Nacogdoches who went on his first woodcock hunt 12 years ago in the Angelina National Forest. He’s been hooked ever since.
“To me, hunting woodcock is just like quail hunting, except I don’t have to drive 10 hours to south or west Texas do it,” he said. “Woodcocks are a very gentlemanly bird. They hold really well for a pointing dog. They aren’t as fast as quail, but they do a lot more jukin’ and jivin’. You’ve got to be quick.”
Like Fitzsimmons, Boatman believes winter woodcock hunting is a sport that goes overlooked by most Texas gun dog enthusiasts for one reason or another.
“Probably 90 percent of the people in Texas couldn’t draw a picture of one if you asked them to,” he said. “Mention the bird to most people, and they’ll just look at you and laugh at the funny name.”
One of the main keys to enjoying success with any migrant game bird is hunting where the birds want to be. Much of that hinges on finding a preferred food source that is both reliable and abundant.
The woodcock feeds predominantly on earthworms, using its king-size bill. The bill is equipped with sensitive nerves that help the woodcock locate worms and snatch them from their underground burrows. Interestingly, the unique positioning of the woodcock’s big eyes allow it to watch for predators while its nose is probing the dirt.
“They are kind of a weird bird,” Fitzsimmons said. “They like to feed at night, dawn and dusk, typically in areas that are fairly open such. Open understory pine plantations have loamy soils where they can probe for worms and other invertebrates with their bills.”
The birds roost during the day, usually thick areas like two- to three-year-old clear cuts. These places have plenty of briars, shrubs and small trees to provide cover from hawks and predators.
“They like it to be fairly open on bottom with a canopy two to three feet above them,” Fitzsimmons said. “They need room to move and run.”
Finding a Hunting Spot
Boatman says trial and error has taught him a lot about woodcocks, particularly when it comes to locating the most productive hunting spots.
“A lot people say you need to be in lowland swampy areas, but I kill them in upland pine forests all the time,” he said. “It’s not near as hard to hunt them there as it is in lowland areas.”
Boatman says he has found some of his best hunting spots by simply driving around isolated national forest roads until he sees something that catches his eye. At that point he’ll cut his pointers loose and let them determine whether the spot is a good one.
“I like to find something I can walk through fairly easy,” he said. “I had much rather find fewer birds in open country and be able to shoot them when they get up than get all scratched up moving 12 birds and only get a shot at two. If birds are around, the dogs will let me know pretty quick.”
The Music of Nature proudly presents “American Woodcock,” a video portrait of an American Woodcock giving it’s nasal “peent” calls at dusk. Notice the subtle throat sound that immediately precedes each peent. At the end, he takes flight and you can hear the high-pitched twittering of his wings, a sound made by modified wing feathers. Videotaped by Lang Elliott in April 2009.
—story by MATT WILLIAMS