Weighing only a few ounces, woodcock commonly explode from cover almost under the feet of hunters. They rush off screaming through the woods, flying so erratically that they can easily embarrass even the best wing shots.
The diminutive birds of boggy bottoms with the extra-long bills attract a small, yet fervent following from dedicated upland hunters because they offer sportsmen challenges that far outweigh their size. Exciting fliers, the splotchy brown and gray puffballs become almost impossible to hit when zigzagging through thick cover as if guided by super-smart navigation radar. Few Cotton State sportsmen intentionally seek woodcock, but some people shoot an occasional bird while pursuing quail, squirrels, rabbits or other game.
“In Alabama, we only have a few hundred dedicated hunters who chase woodcock,” says Seth Maddox, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ top migratory bird biologist. “Most of the birds are probably shot incidental to other types of hunting when someone just happens to jump one. Woodcock numbers have been declining for years, but hunting pressure on them has also been declining.”
Like with most migratory birds, weather patterns determine how many come to Alabama each year. During cold years or preceding a major front, birds fly all the way to the Gulf Coast. In mild winters, fewer make the complete journey. When they do arrive and find good habitat, woodcock often congregate in great numbers and frequently return to the same places year after year if nothing changes.
“Alabama is kind of a funnel for woodcock,” Maddox says. “Woodcock migrate to Alabama, usually between October and December, to escape the harsh winters up north. The birds in Alabama are coming from Minnesota all the way over to Quebec and Newfoundland. We do have some that are more residential in nature and breed in Alabama.”
Short and squat, woodcock thrive in hardwood bottomlands with damp soils and dense underbrush that gives them good cover. Although they don’t like flooded swamps or marshes, they do feed on low ridges and dry spoil banks running through wetlands and any slightly higher ground bordering lake or river shorelines. A clear-cut regrowing with vegetation or the edges of a bottomland creek running through brushy forest also make good places to look for woodcock.
“Woodcock prefer really dense cover,” Maddox says. “They are typically found in early successional hardwood habitat like bottomlands close to water. Streamside management zones in forested habitat are very good because they’re typically a little more grown up. Anywhere that woodcock can find a stream or a water source with thick cover would be a good place to look for them.”
When scouting for woodcock, look for “probe holes” and white “splashings.” Woodcock like rich, damp soil where they can use their long nimble bills to probe for their favorite food – earthworms. With tremendously high metabolic rates, woodcock feed about every eight hours around the clock. Although they can eat their weight in earthworms each day, woodcock might also grab insect larvae, slugs, snails, insects, and some seeds. They particularly like blackberries.
Woodcock use their outstanding camouflage to virtually disappear among the leaves and other debris on the forest floor. Their large eyes set high and far back on their heads give the birds excellent night vision and one of the best fields of view of any animal. They can see predators coming from practically any direction.
In thick cover, well-camouflaged woodcock frequently remain motionless until forced to fly. When flushed, they burst from cover with wings twittering and the bird screeching unforgettably while zigzagging through nearly impenetrable thickets with ease.
“When woodcock flush, they are incredibly hard to hit,” Maddox says. “They’re extremely agile in the woods. They have to get through that thick understory in the habitat they like, so they’re a tough target to shoot. They are really difficult to hit in a place with a lot of small trees in the way when trying to swing a shotgun and shoot. It’s definitely a tough bird to hunt.”
The Alabama woodcock season runs from through Jan. 30, 2022, with a limit of three per day. Any wildlife management areas with soggy soil and bottomland forests might hold birds, especially along the Tennessee, Black Warrior, Alabama and Tombigbee river systems. Some of best public hunting occurs on the Barbour, Black Warrior, Blue Spring, David K. Nelson, Freedom Hills, Geneva State Forest, the Jackson County WMAs, James D. Martin-Skyline, Oakmulgee, Seven-Mile Island and Upper Delta WMAs.
John N. Felsher is a professional freelance writer who lives in Semmes, Ala. He also hosts an outdoors tips show for WAVH FM Talk 106.5 radio station in Mobile, Ala. Contact him at email@example.com or through Facebook.