By Bob Gwizdz
When it comes to naming favorite game animals in Michigan, you will go through a bunch of species before you ever get to woodcock.
Deer, ducks, grouse, geese — heck, I suspect rabbits and squirrels are more likely to be named before woodcock, which seem to be added as an afterthought to ruffed grouse. That’s not right. Personally, I’d just as soon we ditch the robins — which we share with two other states as official birds — and replace it with the American woodcock.
The woodcock is an unusual critter — a member of the shorebird family that has adapted to live in the uplands. It is an important game bird in the Eastern United States and though it is a migratory species, wintering largely along the Gulf Coast, no state has more of claim to woodcock than Michigan. Michigan produces more woodcock than any other state. Hunters kill more woodcock in Michigan than any other state. More woodcock are banded in Michigan than any other state.
Most closely resembling Wilson’s snipe in appearance, though, they are of a different genus — woodcock are rounder than snipe with shorter legs. They have large eyes set in the middle of their heads that give them near 360-degree vision. Uniquely, the upper mandible of the bird’s long, straight bill is flexible, allowing them to probe the ground for invertebrates. Earthworms make up the vast bulk of their diet.
Unlike snipe, which are associated with marshes and wet meadows, woodcock are forest birds, living in areas of early succession. They are often associated with ruffed grouse, as they prefer similar habitats, and it isn’t unusual to find them in the same proximity, though woodcock appear to be significantly more widespread. Grouse are generally associated with aspen stands, as aspen is an important part of their diet. Woodcock are often found in aspens because of their preference for high stem density, but they don’t require it. In fact, in places where aspen grows in sandy soil, woodcock may be absent; there are not a lot of earthworms in the sand. Soft, moist, rich soils are the key.
Because of their linkage to grouse among hunters, woodcock are generally thought of as Northern Michigan birds, where the bulk of Michigan’s aspen stands occur. But there are plenty of woodcock in Southern Michigan, where they prosper in any thick, young woodlots. Any multi-stemmed shrubs or brush – autumn olive, honeysuckle, even young maple stands – give them the cover they need to escape avian predators.
In recent years, I’ve taken to hunting woodcock significantly more in Southern Michigan, often in young woodlots on state game areas. One of my hunting partners, Chuck Riley, does the bulk of his woodcock hunting (and woodcock banding in the spring) within easy driving distance of his Lansing home.
Chuck Riley takes a woodcock from his German shorthaired pointer, Gena. Riley’s woodcock hunting success has come all over the state, with a fair amount of it in Southern Michigan.
“Why would I drive 150 miles to hunt woodcock when I can find a limit of birds within 50 miles of my home?” Riley asked.
I hunt with Riley a day or two each fall, and it’s rare that we don’t kill our six woodcock. Sometimes we’re done in short order. And often when we aren’t, it’s because one of us (and that would be me) isn’t shooting as well as he should. It isn’t often for a lack of birds.
Most importantly, we usually hunt in late September/early October, well before the birds have begun migrating south. Usually, woodcock numbers in Southern Michigan seem to only increase as the season stretches into mid- to late October/early November.
Still, it is not unusual to find woodcock – presumably migrants – along the woody edges of pheasant hunting fields right up until the opening of rifle season.
“I started out hunting in Southern Michigan with Andy Amman back in the mid-1970s,” said Riley, a retiree who owns German shorthaired pointers and is determined to exercise them nearly every day. “Actually, we found quite a few grouse down here back then, too, and I’ve talked to a lot of guys who said there were a lot more in the ‘60s and early ‘70s.”
These days, grouse in Southern Michigan are rarer than Detroit Lions championships. But not woodcock, which can be found all-season long.
“I shoot very few woodcock in aspen,” said Riley, who is increasingly chasing the needle-nosed birds south of M-57. “I find them in young oaks, willows, and alders down around the edge of swamps. You find them in autumn olives and those doggone raspberries that the dogs don’t want to go in after them. And I find them in that low stuff in that mud – how would I describe it? Swamp brush.”
Riley, who participates in the federal woodcock survey by sending in wings, says 75 percent of the birds he kills come from south of Clare, despite making occasional forays into the North county. Riley also bands woodcock, and though he usually makes a week-long pilgrimage to the Houghton Lake area to band, the bulk of the chicks he finds are in Southern Michigan.
Riley’s chapter of the Ruffed Grouse Society is active in funding woodcock habitat management projects in Southern game areas — most notably Rose Lake and Gratiot-Saginaw. He’s banded birds at Rose Lake (though he doesn’t hunt there) and says he’s seeing the habitat manipulation pay off.
“There are a lot of birds in Southern Michigan, but they’re doing a lot more management now,” he said. “Very few people who you tell about hunting grouse and woodcock will believe you if you tell them you hunt down here. If you’re really serious about grouse, you have to go to Gladwin or Roscommon County, but there are a lot more birds around here than people think.”
“One year, I really got into them around the 10th of October,” he continued. “They were thick. I’ve seen places where you put them up three at a time — 30 birds in a half hour on 10 acres — and they weren’t there two days earlier. But I’ve seen when you go out and shoot your limit, then flush 20 more birds on the way back to the truck, then go back the next day and not find a bird. They’re gone.”
“In 2014, I moved 18 to 20 birds on the last day of the season,” Riley said.
Ah, the season. It used to run concurrently with the early grouse season — Sept. 15 through Nov. 14. But woodcock had been in a long-term decline since the mid-1960s and about a dozen years ago, the feds decided to shorten the system and delay the opener. Under the current federal framework, woodcock season can open the Saturday closest to Sept. 20 and run for 45 days. Michigan has opted for the earliest possible opener (anywhere from Sept. 17 to Sept. 23, depending on the calendar) and runs a continuous 45-day season.
The woodcock population decline seems to have tapered off somewhat, but Al Stewart, the Department of Natural Resources upland game bird specialist, warns hunters from assuming there’s a cause-and-effect relationship between the more restricted season and the change in population trends. For one thing, there are far fewer woodcock hunters now – it’s all deer, all the time, right? – and the DNR has made early succession forest management a priority.
“In Michigan, we continue to work hard to create early successional forest habitat,” Stewart said. “We’re aggressively harvesting aspen and providing habitat for woodcock. Other states have helped prioritize young forests, too.”
An example is Michigan’s GEMS – Grouse Enhanced Management System – areas that are harvested in a manner to continuously provide young habitat on any given area. Woodcock hunting at most of the GEMS is top-notch.
Although I would characterize myself as a “grouse and woodcock” hunter when I go afield with my dog, I’ve got to confess that I shoot many more woodcock than I do grouse. Some other hunters will admit as much, too, but it seems like just as often I hear guys tell me that they can’t seem to hit woodcock. They do have an unusual flight pattern – unlike grouse which tend to fly straight away – but I think I do better on woodcock simply because they often flush much closer than grouse. Woodcock depend on their natural camouflage as part of their survival strategy, and it isn’t unusual to see them on the ground mere feet ahead of your dog’s nose. Woodcock hold well for a point — they are excellent quarry when training a young dog.
Chuck Riley examines a woodcock he harvested at a Southern Michigan state game area.
I prefer to hunt them with a 20-gauge light shotgun that I can shoulder and point quickly with an open choke. I like size seven and a half or eight shot, though I have some buddies who prefer size nine. But I like to have a little more oomph behind my load in case I have to reach out to get them. That’s not often the case, though, generally you have a narrow window when shooting woodcock as you are often in stuff so thick you have to fight your way through it — though as the season progresses and the leaves fall, longer shots are possible.
Woodcock will never replace grouse as table fare, though they are, depending on your palate, quite flavorful. They are dark-breasted (oddly enough, their legs are light meat) and if you don’t like waterfowl for the table, you would probably hate woodcock. There are certainly those who hunt grouse and ignore woodcock. I’m not one of them. I figure if the dog does its job and points a woodcock, it deserves an opportunity to retrieve it, too.