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The Many Nicknames of the American Woodcock

The Many Nicknames of the American Woodcock

The American Woodcock has a storied history in culture that has resulted in many names and interesting history.

Some may be offended when they hear the various names for the unusual species that is the American Woodcock. Author George Bird Evans was quick to condemn the act in a way that has been referenced many times since its mention in The Upland Shooting Life. But the very evolution of this bird, unlike any of its counterparts, lends itself to this creative naming. 

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The nicknaming of woodcock is far older than modern wingshooting. The biological history of the American woodcock is believed to date back as far as 1,000,000 years, surviving at least two ice ages. The oldest fossil record was found in Marian County, Florida, and carbon dated to the Pleistocene period (William G. Sheldon, 1971). We know they served as a food source for Indigenous people, were trapped and hunted by colonists in the 1600s onward, and, eventually, became a wingshooters’ favorite bird by the end of the 19th century. Along that road, people gave many names to what we now call the America Woodcock or Scolopax minor. The Latin name was changed from Philohela minor in the latest version of the American Ornithologists’ Union 5th Edition in 1957. 

Indigenous Language and the Woodcock 

The woodcock is no stranger to the First Nations that live in the eastern and central flyways. History shows the woodcock was a significant staple in many Indigenous diets. Early historical records indicate several forms of trapping and hunting methods that were used to catch these birds. In 1535, Jacques Cartier reported, “Numerous clearings along the river where corn, beans and squash were planted. practiced slash-and-burn agriculture, moving every 10 to 15 years. There were many villages of 1,000 to 2,000 people. Thus pre-European inhabitants had already created habitats for woodcock” (Wildlife Management Institute, 2008). These practices would put large numbers of woodcock directly next to Indigenous settlements. 

Indigenous languages can be challenging to track, preserve, and accurately depict. Hundreds of years of colonization suppressed the passing on of language, stories, and histories, including those of game birds. This is one of the most harrowing realities of the ironically named “American” woodcock. These languages were only reflected in written text in recent years as an act to preserve them, which is a controversial topic in its own right. I am sure my research does none of these languages justice. 

The words for snipe and woodcock were often lost in translation because of their similar appearance and lack of ornithology knowledge by those engaged in recording such history. Ojibwa’s padajashkanji and Nispissing’s padjashkaanji are believed to translate to “wrong-clawed” and might be used for both snipe and woodcock. 

In Tales of the North American Indians (1929), a creation story of the Cahto references the woodcock: “There shall be many woodcocks, yellow-hammers, and sap-suckers.” This is a perfect example of when language barriers played a significant role, as they most likely were referring to snipe as woodcock did not exist anywhere near California. 

Early work on the language of Seneca believed that they used the same word to describe both the snipe and woodcock. No dzahgwe literally translates to “lifts the pot.” In the book Making Game: an Essay on Woodcock (1990), Guy de la Valdene wrote, “The Seneca Indians believed that the Creator made the woodcock from the leftover parts of every other bird. If that is true, his heart must be that of an eagle, for it is big and filled with the unique courage required to wander in solitude through the mysterious forests of his continent.” It’s a wonderfully written excerpt; however, I have yet to find this origin story in print. 

In Seneca Indian Myths (1922), the woodcock appears in the story “The Trials and Death of Inchworm.” In that story, two men were referred to as the “Woodcock people.” The inchworm hides from these two men in the story. Again, in the story Quail Kills Cold Weather and the Thunder Family, “He threw; the dice became woodcocks, flew high and came down dice, all of one color.” The story itself is no doubt a colonizer’s rendition of Indigenous history. 

In the 1897 book Myths of the Cherokee, “some warriors had medicine to change their shape as they pleased, so that they could escape from their enemies… Then climbing a tree he changed himself to a swamp woodcock, and with one cry he spread his wings and flew across to the other side of the river, where both took their natural shape again and made their way through the woods to another settlement.”

The Cree call them papakapittesis or “little speckled creature.” In 1832, St. Mary’s Committee of the Algic Society, in an act to evangelize Indigenous people, gave a lecture on the grammatical structure of Chippewa. The example was “the possessive is made by adding the letter m, as in maimai, a woodcock, ni maimaim, my woodcock…” What is interesting about the word structure is its similarity with words used to describe a brother or sister. 

The Abenaki, the rightful landowners of much of northern New England, called them Nagwibagw sibs, or “under-leaf birds.” Pesk tha to is the word the Shawnee use. Isi Nia Pishichi and fitukhak (feeh-touk-hahk) appear for woodcock in Choctaw. The Kansa language uses the word wazhíⁿgapa. The structure wazhí is often used to describe many bird species in their language. 

A woodcock hunter spreads the wings on a timberdoodle.

Modern Woodcock Nicknames 

Beyond their Indigenous names, English-speaking North Americans gave woodcock plenty of nicknames. John Audubon mentioned the people of New Brunswick using Bog Sucker more often than their modern name in a text from 1835. Labrador twister is believed to have been derived from people watching American woodcock perform their spring sky dance. 

Timberdoodle is the most commonly accepted name for woodcock in wingshooting culture. It is believed to have first been recorded in American Turf Registry and Sporting Magazine in July of 1839 by Frank Forester. “‘Well done to all!’ said Harry-‘nine timber-doodles and five quail, and only one shot missed…” George Bird Evans would write, “I don’t know who thought up such an asinine name as timberdoodle for so lovely a gamebird but I suspect it wasn’t a shooting man.”

Perhaps the most iconic nicknaming that stuck was by famous writer Burton Spiller, who referred to them affectionately as the Little Russet Feller. This term first appeared in his iconic book Grouse Feathers (1935). 

“Hokumpoke” pops up all over the internet with little to no reference to when or how it was connected to the American woodcock. Some basic etymology can dissect some purposeful meaning that often follows this bird. Hokum, meaning hoovers around words like “nonsense,” “false or irrelevant,” and even “low comedy.” The term is believed to have a connection to the phrase hocus-pocus. One who has ever spent time observing this bird can see how the woodcock could get mixed up in such wordplay. 

In a 2015 film with Modern Wild by Project Upland, they referred to these birds as timber rockets. In another 2015 production, the term dood was used, most likely shortened from timberdoodle. And in yet another film, they were referred to as “God’s leftovers,” no doubt inspired by Guy de la Valdene’s work. Other words include night partridge, mud snipe, big-eye, mud bat, brush snipe, swamp bat, and fiddle squeak. 

While some may cringe at the large variety of nicknames given to the American woodcock, I can only think of how much of a testament it is to their uniqueness as a species. Sure other game birds have their nicknames, but even the “king of game birds,” the ruffed grouse, comes up short on such a storied and inventive history in naming.

View Comments (2)
  • Nice article, but AJ has confused the reference to ‘woodcock’ (interpreted from the Cahto creation story) as ‘snipe’, since Woodcock do not occur in northern California. The term almost certainly referred to Pileated Woodpecker in this case, since the other two species listed in the quote (‘yellow-hammer – now known as Northern Flicker, and Sap-sucker, which applies to several species of sapsucker in the woodpecker family) are woodpeckers. “Woodcock” and ‘Log Cock’ are old names for Pileated Woodpecker… this has lead to ongoing confusion as demonstrated by a team of game biologists asking rural folks in Louisiana if they had been shooting any woodcock that season. The guy says ‘we sure did!’ and produced a necklace of Pileated Woodpecker beaks as proof!!

    • That is very fascinating! I found a similar situation referring to a sandhill crane as a woodcock as well. Thank you for the input and correction on this.

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