Many of my youthful fantasies came out of the pages of Outdoor Life, Sports Afield and other magazines I’d read on Saturdays at Miller’s Barbershop. In those pages I’d follow in the footsteps of men fishing in exotic locations for fish not found in northern Indiana. I’d accompany them (in my mind) as the authors traipsed through primeval forests for game unknown and unavailable to the civilized world where I lived.
None seemed so mysterious as the “timberdoodle” they often hunted on purpose or by accident. Timberdoodles are woodcock, more properly, the American woodcock, a bird, by their accounts, that lived only in and around places frequently associated with roughed grouse.
Though woodcock were (and still are) listed as a game bird here in Indiana with an open and closed season, bag limits and all the rest, I knew of no one who’d ever hunted them, much less had ever even shot one. “They must live in some other part of the state,” I rationalized.
The first timberdoodle I ever saw was on an unusual, evening field trip while I was at Purdue. Our wildlife class assembled and our professor guided us to some lowlands close to the Wabash to find some woodcock. I imagined our chances of success would be akin to looking for Leprechauns. Once our group was secreted away in the brushy bottomland not far from campus, the woodcock showed up right on schedule.
It was spring and the woodcock was performing its evening courtship display. , I now believe far more people have come to know the American woodcock by watching their springtime rituals at sunset than have ever gotten to know them through hunting. That includes my wife did, my kids and many others I’ve “guided” over the years. I never tire of marveling at it.
I’ve hunted timberdoodles many times. I’ve been successful many times. But when I think of woodcock, I don’t think of shotguns and bird dogs first. I think of warm spring evenings watching the timberdoodles doing their “sky dance.” I’ve never known anyone to not be awed by the experience.
I bet I could find a woodcock singing ground within a couple miles of anyone’s house in this area, anytime in March or April. Just find an area with lowland trees, willows, cottonwoods, aspens or the like, bordered by a small clearing or even abutting a mown yard. Pick a day with generally clear skies and calm winds at sunset. Be on site as daylight fades to darkness. Then listen.
The sound called a “peent” is unmistakable. It sounds like the word peent or maybe, eent, uttered through a weak duck call. If you are late, you may hear the whistling twitter of woodcock wings or the melodious songs coming from high in the sky.
The bird makes the peent sound while on the ground. Move close, but only close enough to get an idea of just where the bird is strutting his stuff. This portion of the ritual lasts several minutes.
Then the bird launches into act two of his diurnal script; fluttering up into the fading light on whistling wings. Now is the time to move close to his peenting ground and take cover a few yards away.
By the time you are in position, the woodcock will be a couple hundred feet in the air and will flutter, glide and bank rapidly back to earth chirping a melodious, yet non-musical tune. Back on the ground, the ritual is played out again and again. Remain quiet and still; the performance will last until the stars come out.
Woodcock perform their courtship rituals at dawn and dusk, but the evening performances last longer. Some wait for robins to signal the surest sign of spring. For me it’s the first time I hear a woodcock’s peent.