This section is from the book "The Dogs Of Great Britain, America, And Other Countries. Their Breeding, Training, and Management in Health and Disease", by John Henry Walsh (Stonehenge). Also available from Amazon: The Dogs Of Great Britain, America And Other Countries.
Custom or law has authorized the beginning of cock shooting on the 1st day of July in most of our States, but it is too early, both on account of the heat of the weather and the condition of the birds. At this period many broods of woodcock are but recently hatched, so that the killing of the hen bird, is the destruction of the young brood. This may perhaps account for the fact that these birds are rapidly diminishing in numbers, and in many places have been exterminated, Woodcock return year after year to the same wood to breed, and if owners of grounds could or would prevent shooting birds too early in the season, their care would be for their own benefit, as well as for that of the public.
Early morning and late afternoon are the times to be preferred for summer shooting, though, as this bird feeds and lies upon the same ground all day long, it may be pursued at any time.
The only difficulty in shooting woodcock is in the thickness of the covert in which they lie. In the summer the old birds rise heavily and often drop close to the gun in the effort to cover their young broods; the young ones rise stupidly, and can be found again within a score or two yards. In shooting in a thick covert, one of the guns should be placed in an open spot where the bird can be seen, as it rises, because the one whose point is made can scarcely get a sight of the bird, at times unless he is very quick. Under these circumstances it is best for the shooter to flush his birds and not suffer the dog to do it; in no case should he permit his dog to go out of sight.
The choice of ground, depends upon the season and various other circumstances. In some places the birds lie in open meadows among rushes, bogs, and water-plants,where there is no brush. They are rarely found in woods. In other places they will be found in brakes of alders where there is a muddy bottom, or in grassy meadows where slow running brooks and swales exist, with patches of willow and tall weeds about them. In the valleys of the mountain ranges they haunt the sides of low meadows at the foot of hills, and spots where streams emerge into the lowlands upon b3ds of black oozy vegetable matter, covered with water plants. A favorite feeding ground is in open woods, upon rich, black alluvial soil, covered with short bunchy grass with soft spots intermingled, and where there is no undergrowth; also in thick, red maple swamps on flat lands adjacent to river banks which are overflowed. In dry, hot weather, the cool, shady, moist ground is most attractive to them.
When woodcock are not to be found in one favorable place, they may often be found in others which might be supposed to be unattractive, so that not only must the sportsman he patient and persevering, but he must also be observing, and make use of his well earned experience. Later in the season cock are to be found not only in such places as have been indicated, but upon damp, springy hill sides, where chestnuts are mixed with laurels and low ever-greens. Indeed as the season lengthens out to November, such hill sides supply these birds, with the most of their favorite food, which they find hidden under fallen leaves. They are always apt to be found where their food is most abundant After this month the annual migration occurs, and the birds silently steal away singly, and in the night, to their winter quarters.
The difference in the size of the male and female woodcock is decidedly marked; so much is this the case that warm controversies have occurred between experienced sportsmen upon this subject; some maintaining that there are two distinct species of the bird in this country. It was finally settled that the greater size of the female had misled many observant sportsmen. Woodcock make annual migrations in the spring and autumn, arriving in the Middle States from the latter part of February or first week of March, according as the season may be open or severe, and departing in the months of November and December. In the autumn migration, the birds that have recently arrived, are called "Flight" birds, and are distinguished by the feathers on the breast being brighter in color than of those that have been lying in the feeding ground for some time; the latter's breast color being decidedly duller in hue. Many young cock are lost during the early freshets. Sometimes the weather is dry and mild in the early part of spring, and the woodcock hatching her brood is overtaken by rainy weather, when the young are drowned, or, if unhatched, the eggs are destroyed. Consequently, the sportsmen always desire a continued dry spring, as it is especially favorable to the increase of all species of game.
The woodcock often feeds in the night, and persons but slightly acquainted with their habits are astonished at discovering in the morning, the amount of borings, covering the soft ground in a favorite feeding place. In very dry weather woodcock gather in the low wet swamps, while after a rain of a day or two's duration, they scatter through the woods, and may be found on hill sides, and, in fact, on much the same ground as in the fall. They are a most devoted and fearless bird. While on the nest a person may stand quietly within a very short distance of one, and if no unusual motion or noise is made, the hen-bird will gaze without fear upon the intruder.