By Matthew R. March, MNRD
Polk County Extension Agent
American woodcock (Scolopax minor), also known as the timberdoodle, is a common winter migrant found throughout the woods of eastern Texas. Unlike other winter migrants such as ducks, geese and hawks that can be easily seen flying overhead or can be heard migrating, woodcock arrives silently and will remain unseen by most throughout the winter.
This solitary and very secretive bird can be found throughout the forest, usually in moist locations. It can also be found in openings or fields and along woody fence lines. It was historically thought that woodcock was just a winter resident to the forest of east Texas and the coastal plain as birds migrated south to escape the cold winters of their northern breeding grounds. However, it is now believed that some individuals do breed and spend the entire year in parts of deep east Texas. Even though this bird may be common to abundant during the winter months it remains unseen as it remains hidden on the forest floor typically in areas with dense underbrush and thickets.
Woodcock is a well camouflaged stocky bird with short legs that are light brown in color on the back with buffy orange underparts. Woodcock can easily be identified by its long straight bill which it uses to probe soil for earthworms which it almost exclusively feeds on. An abundance of little holes in the soil is a sign of woodcock being present. Even though woodcock live on the forest floor they are technically shorebirds and are closely related to snipe and dowitchers. One of the most unique physical traits of woodcock is they almost have eyes in the back of their head. The large eyes are positioned high and near the back of the head to allow them to be on the lookout for predators from above while they are probing the soil looking for their favorite food, earthworms.
Woodcock are well known in the birding world for their aerial displays that males perform during the spring breeding season to attract females. The sky dance as it is sometimes called can be seen during dusk and dawn. Males will give a buzzy call from a display area and then fly upward in a wide spiral. At a height of around 300 feet the male will descend rapidly with zigzags and chirping. The male will land silently next to a female, if no female is present the male will repeat the ritual all night.
Their cryptic camouflage and behavior of not moving means the birds remain invisible until you nearly step on them and then they burst upwards to escape. Because of this, woodcock tend to flush like quail and thus can be hunted in the same manner utilizing a pointer dog. Though a dog is not required, dogs help tremendously in finding the birds in the thick cover they call home. Woodcock may not be a very popular game bird here in Texas, but it is highly sought after in midwestern states. In Texas the season runs from mid-December through the end of January. The bag limit is 3 birds