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.
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.
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.
A.J. DeRosa founded Project Upland in 2014 as an excuse to go hunting more often (and it worked). A New England native, he grew up hunting and has spent over 35 years in pursuit of big and small game species across three continents. He has a passion for side-by-side shotguns, inspiring him to travel the world to meet the people and places from which they come. Looking to turn his passion into inspiration for others, AJ was first published in 2004 and went on to write his first book The Urban Deer Complex in 2014. He soon discovered a love for filmmaking, particularly the challenge of capturing ruffed grouse with a camera, which led to the award-winning Project Upland film series. AJ's love for all things wild has caused him to advocate on the federal and state levels to promote and expand conservation policy, habitat funding, and upland game bird awareness. He currently serves as the Strafford County New Hampshire Fish & Game Commissioner in order to give back to his community and to further the mission of the agency. When those hunting excuses are in play, you can find him wandering behind his Wirehaired Pointing Griffon in the mountains of New England and anywhere else the birds take them.