The American Woodcock

The Game Cock clip’d and arm’d for flight / Does the Rising Sun affright!

In late summer, just when the nights are beginning to feel like autumn, the American woodcock travels from its inland breeding grounds to spend the harvest season in the brushy scrublands and new-growth forests of South Jersey.

This unique migratory bird spends most of its time on the ground, digging in the soil for worms, grubs, and other invertebrates with its soft, dexterous feet.

The woodcock is a plump, smallish forest fowl with no discernable neck, stubby legs and a large, rounded head and a long, straight bill; the woodcock can also open and close the upper tip of its beak while probing the earth for food.

Often the first clue that a woodcock is present will be a surprisingly loud burst of wings, followed by the flash of a pale yellow or tan-colored breast as it darts with a low, zagging flight into the brush.

Typically woodcock arrive in South Jersey in large numbers just as summer fades into fall and will stay throughout the season into early winter.

Once the winds turn bitter and the soil freezes in the uplands, woodcock will migrate south to spend the colder months along the Gulf of Mexico.

In milder winters, some number of woodcock may stay in South Jersey through the season, before heading inland and north towards Canada and the northern Atlantic states to their breeding range.

During the breeding season male woodcocks will establish themselves on individual singing grounds, and at dusk and dawn, and some nights when the moon is bright and full, they will try and attract a mate with an acrobatic flight display, flying high into the air and descending rapidly in a series of twists and turns. While they descend, the males will elicit a chirping trill, and the wind passing through their wing feathers produces a whistling twitter.

A popular game-bird, the woodcock’s bursting, darting flight provides a true test of a marksman’s skill, and only the most well-trained and disciplined dogs can reliably sniff them out.

In New Jersey’s southern zone the hunting season for woodcock opens concurrently with the pheasant and quail seasons, closes briefly in December, then runs until New Year’s Day.

No special stamps or permits are necessary to hunt woodcock in New Jersey, though because they are migratory birds a HIP number is required.

•       Look for woodcock in areas where the soil is moist and soft. Upland areas a short distance back from the coast along the Delaware Bay and its tributaries are good places to find these unique birds. The verges of fields bordering on new-growth forest and reclaimed farmlands, as well as lightly forested areas near bodies of water are also prime feeding grounds.

•       When they fly, they usually fly alone and in a quick burst that will startle the unwary, especially if they, as is their habit, only break cover when someone is within a few feet of them.

•       The Edward G. Bevan Wildlife Management Area in Commercial Township sustains a regular yearly population of these migratory birds, from Late September until the onset of winter.