Our American Woodcock
For bird dog owners living in the North, late winter and early spring brings the much loved American woodcock home for the summer. In the fall, the woodcock migrated south to warmer climates. The woodcock has a prehensile bill which it uses to probe the soil for earthworms. Once the ground freezes, it can no longer feed; therefore the need to migrate south for the winter.
Until recently, it was unknown how far a woodcock would fly in one night during migration. However, in recent years, small satellite tracking devices have been attached to captured woodcock to record their journey. It’s been discovered that woodcock often travel up to 400 miles in one night. That’s a lot of work for a little bird. Woodcock fly solo or in small loose flocks.
After studying the arrival of the spring woodcock, I can say that I’ve identified no pattern to their arrival in New Hampshire. I’ve seen them arrive the third week in February and the second week in March. This year, with a fairly mild winter, most woodcock aficionados thought they would be here in February. However, the little rascals threw us a curve ball…they arrived March 10th.
Typically, we see the larger female arrive first. The smaller male arrives shortly thereafter. The male has what is referred to as a singing ground. It’s where het performs his mating dance and flights to attract females. He starts his mating ritual with a peent. After the peent, he flies in a spiral motion almost straight up for about 50 yards. This produces a twittering sound that attracts the females. The females will fly into the male’s singing ground for mating. Mother nature has instilled into the male to keep up the mating rituals for a couple of months. That’s to ensure that late arriving females have the opportunity to breed. It also provides the female with the opportunity for a second clutch if something happens to her first clutch.
The hen makes a small nest consisting of twig and leaf matter. The nest is usually within 150 yards of the male’s singing grounds. There are usually two to four eggs with incubation taking 20 to 22 days. Young birds can fly within two weeks.
So let’s take a look at how the bird dog owner benefits from the spring arrival of the American woodcock. The arrival of the woodcock gives you the opportunity to train your dogs on wild birds. From the first arrival of the spring woodcock, there is about a two week window for training. We don’t want to stress the birds once the female is nesting. For your author’s location in Southeast New Hampshire, it’s not of great concern because 90% of our birds are transient. Their destination is Downeast Maine or New Brunswick, Canada. Occasionally we’ll find a nesting female, however, it’s rare.
What’s neat about transient woodcock is you can find them almost anywhere. If there is a lightly wooded area in an industrial park you may find transient woodcock. You’ll find them along a rural road. There is a tiny little wooded area between my house and the neighbor. There is always at least one bird in that wooded area. There are a few rules that I feel we should follow when working our dogs on spring woodcock. Woodcock have traveled a great distance to get to their breeding grounds. They have to be tired. We never follow up on a flush…one flush is enough. As mentioned earlier, give yourself about a two week window from the first arrival for working dogs. It’s then time to let the hen have peace and tend to her clutch. After that, we begin around August 1st working dogs on young birds. Before working summer birds, however, check with your state fish and game department regarding regulations on training dogs on wild game.
I’ve received emails asking where my column has been for the past three months. Unfortunately, I was in the hospital all of January and February fighting pneumonia. I want to thank our editor, Paul Reynolds for being patient and allowing me to continue writing for the Northwoods Sporting Journal.
Copyright 2020 Paul Fuller