"Why is it you like hunting woodcocks?" a friend asked me. "You wear yourself out wading through mud and vines, hoping to find some little brown birds that may be there and may not. And if they are there, if you somehow miraculously timed it right, then every bird you find will flush right under your feet and scare the wits out of you. You'll twist yourself into a knot trying to shoot them before they sputter away through the timber, and if you're really, really lucky that day, you'll actually kill one or two.
"When you come crawling out of the thickets with those two little gooney birds," he continued, "you'll have so many briar scratches, it'll look like you fell in a nest of bobcats. And what do you have to show for all this effort? Enough meat to feed a shrew.
"I just don't understand it," he said.
"It's fun," said I.
"Then maybe it's not just the birds who are gooney," he replied.
I killed my first woodcock when I was ten. I was hunting a tract of swampy woods near my home when this strange-looking, quail-sized bird with a long beak flushed right under my feet. It startled me, for I was not expecting to find any birds on the ground in this bit of mucky bottomland. But it didn't frighten me enough to make me miss.
It took a long time to find the bird, camouflaged as it was on leaves blanketing the ground. When finally I had it in my hands, I admired this unusual woodland ghost. Its bill was like a knitting needle, its legs weak and squatty, the tail just a little tuft of stubby feathers. The soft plumage was a warm earthy brown flecked with black and cinnamon. Broad black bars passed over the crown between big ebony eyes.
I took the bird to my next-door neighbor, a young man who was a more experienced hunter than I.
"Do you know what it is?" I asked.
"A timberdoodle," he replied.
"Are they good to eat?"
"Better'n anything else there is," he said. "I'd trade ten quail for one timberdoodle any day."
That night, my grandmother cut the meat away from the bird's keelbone, dredged it in flour and fried it in butter. And from the moment I ate those flavorful morsels of rich dark flesh, I was a full-fledged, go-get-em-every-chance-I-got timberdoodle hunter.
The timberdoodle's proper name is American woodcock. Some folks know it by unusual monickers like mudbat, bogsnipe or bogsucker. By any name, however, the woodcock is a curious bird. Its too-long bill has a hinge near the tip that lets it extract worms from the soil without having to open its mouth. Its ears are in front of its eyes. And, if that isn't enough, the woodcock has an upside-down brain that is unknown elsewhere in the world of birds.
It's difficult to explain why anyone would want to hunt these comical birds, even for a longbill fan like me. It's a self-punishing sport where hours are spent busting brush and tackling ankle-deep mud. Tangles of briars and vines eat at your clothes and skin. And while buried to the ears in a latticework of vegetation, you must try to snap-shoot a crooked-flying, brown-feathered blur that has the nerve-jangling habit of flushing directly underfoot. Tough hunting like that discourages many people.
Woodcock populations have declined in recent decades, too, because the densely understoried bottomland habitat they require has been drained and cleared in many areas. As a result, bag limits are small — as few as three birds in at least part of the country — and some hunters just don't think it's worth the bother unless you can bring home more than a trio of small birds to eat.
There are some people, however, who can't get enough of hunting these wondrous bottomland gamebirds, including me and a handful of my friends. Every autumn, when the weather man announces the first cold front blowing down from the North, we get woodcocks on our minds. The woodcocks migrate ahead of the fronts before the ground freezes and the worms they eat become inaccessible.
"Did you hear the weather report?" Jim asked recently when I answered the phone. "There's a blue norther coming down. The timberdoodles are probably flocking into Lost Pond already. I'll pick you up at five tomorrow morning. You bring sandwiches, and I'll bring the coffee. Patterson's going with us."
At seven, we were making our first push through a tract of bottomland timber along an east Arkansas river. This particular covert is a classic woodcock hospice of dense sweetgum saplings and honeysuckle thickets. A beaver slough slashes the edge, feeding water into the spongy ground beneath the canopy of oaks and tupelos. The territory is thick and uncivil; it's hard to find space between the tangles of vegetation to set down your feet.
As we waded into the thicket, I saw the first signs that our timing was right: white splatters on the leaves and little holes in the mud, like someone had been poking around with a stick. Then 10 yards out front, from the depths of the sweetgums, came a sharp, ascendant twittering. A brown, fist-sized bird spiraled skyward through the branches.
I lost sight of the bird almost immediately in the crisscross of leafy limbs, but by some fluke of luck, it presented Jim an uncommonly clear shot, and he killed it.
"In case you didn't know, boys, this is what we're looking for," he said, holding the timberdoodle up for us to see.
The second bird came out low and fast. I shot, missed, and it flew into the nether reaches of the covert. After it we went, and when it flushed again in characteristic fashion, Gregg mounted, swung and fired in one quick fluid motion. A detonation of feathers showed he had found his mark.
My friends and I wound up our morning of woodcock hunting with a grand total of eight timberdoodles, an average of almost three apiece. That doesn't sound like many, and it's not. But like most woodcock fans, we don't measure the success of our hunt by how many birds we shoot.
That being said, however, I must admit to being stingy when it comes to the woodcocks I kill. A limit of three birds is enough to make dinner for me, and me alone, if I'm lucky enough to kill a limit in the first place. So despite the fact that timberdoodles are the best of the best when it comes to game, I never serve them to dinner guests, and rarely share them even with my wife and sons.
This is disturbing behavior, I know, but I often prepare them for the table Old World style — with the head and entrails intact — just to discourage my family and friends from eating them. I tell them how the traille — the intestines, still full of digested worms — are considered the best part by many connoisseurs when finely chopped and spread on a piece of toast. And I make sure they all see the bird when it is ready to be served, staring up from the platter with its big dead eyes, the long knitting-needle beak tucked under its wing. Invariably, they screw up their faces and make gagging noises. And I smile, knowing the woodcock I have prepared will be mine and mine alone to eat.
I just hope those I love never catch on.