This bird is well known to all our sportsmen. It usually begins to lay its eggs in April, but nests with eggs are frequently found in February and March, as far north as Pennsylvania. Its nest is made on the ground, and is composed of grass and a few dry leaves: It lays four eggs generally, but five have been found in its nest. In July they are considered sufficiently grown for the sportsmen, but it is not uncommon in that month to find many too young to be without the care of the mother, which is always indicated by the action of the old bird when flushed, called hovering. The true sportsman, in such cases, withholds his fire, and spares the imploring mother and her young.
It is found throughout the United States and Canada, and passes to the south as the winter approaches. I have found them in great numbers in South Carolina in January.
The female is larger than the male, but both are considerably smaller than the European bird of the same name, and are also of a different species. Those who have eaten of both kinds pronounce the American the more delicate.
I have never met with them elsewhere in as great abundance as in New Jersey. The extensive, wild, and wet meadows of that state, are favourite places of resort for them, during the drought so usual with us in July and August. They congregate in such places at those seasons, in numbers truly astonishing, and incredible to those who have not witnessed it. Here the sportsman may easily fill his bag, without greater risk than an occasional plunge, belly deep, into a mud-hole, which is not so much to be regretted, as it breaks in upon the monotony of killing, and affords a hearty laugh to his companions.
A great fault in sportsmen, on this as well as other birds, is the ambition of killing for quantity, which occasions them to protract their hunt until many of the birds are spoiled by the heat and delay. The sportsman should have a spice of chivalry in his composition; he should not be merely a wanton and reckless destroyer. He should always spare the hovering bird, and confine his efforts to others, to the number he can carry in order to his home, for his friends or himself. I have known this pernicious system of shooting for quantity pursued on the grouse, and to gratify the false pride of killing more than any other party, the time protracted until all the birds killed on the first day were spoiled and had to be thrown away. You should raise your voice against this growing and vicious ambition, and establish it as a rule among sportsmen, that credit should be given only for such game as each returned with in good order. Our Indians look upon this habit of the whites with the utmost horror. He kills and wastes, say they, without object; and riots over life as if it were a thing of no value. The game vanishes from his desolating path, and the ground is covered by his destroying hand with that which he does not mean to use. The bounteous gifts of the Great Spirit are the mere objects of his wanton destruction.
We should redeem ourselves from this just reproach, and infuse some prudential consideration and moral feeling in our hours of sport.
The woodcock is easily killed; a slight blow will bring him to the ground. I have frequently looked in vain for marks of the shot upon their bodies, and have, been led to suppose that young birds will drop sometimes from fright at the report of the gun, and allow them-selves to be picked up.
They are juicy in July and August, but seldom fat. In September they are generally in bad condition; it is their moulting season, which lasts until about the 20th, when they are also very difficult to find. After about the 20th, they show themselves more abundantly, and improve in condition rapidly. In October and November they are in prime order, fat, juicy, and full-feathered; bold in their flight, and less firm to the dog. They leave also in these months, their usual summer haunts, and are found in clear woods with a damp soil well covered with grass. They are also frequently found late in November on the south sides of wooded hills, apparently basking or resting. On such occasions the sportsman must not lose a moment, as these are generally migrating birds, and are off by the next day, as I have experienced on more occasions than one.
Their food consists of worms, and the larvae of insects. It turns over old leaves to draw the latter from its abode, and seeks the former in wet boggy ground by boring. I have never seen it in the act of boring, but I have been told by several old sportsmen, that in performirig this operation, it first strikes its bill in the soil, then raising on its feet, opens its tail and wings, and flutters round upon its bill as a pivot When in full plumage it is a beautiful bird, and of an extremely mild and kind aspect. I have frequently felt something like remorse, when, on picking up a wounded one, I have met the forgiving expression of its full and bright, yet soft hazel orb. How many of the beauties who dazzle and enslave us, would be proud of such an eye.