Where and how to find American woodcock habitat throughout the country
The American woodcock shares a lot of its range and prime habitat with the ruffed grouse. Where they occur, they are two of the most popular upland game birds. But there are some differences between their habitats that are worth mentioning if you want to key in specifically on them inside an healthy forest system. For this guide, we will identify the basic habitat types that the woodcock prefers to use across its range. Then we’ll look at habitat preferences regionally for more specific details.
General American woodcock habitat
Like the ruffed grouse, the American woodcock is a bird that requires early successional (i.e. young) forest. They use densely growing deciduous tree species (aspens, maples, birch, beech, cherry) to hide from aerial and ground predators. Mixed hardwood-conifer forest stands work for them, too. Provided the conifers aren’t too thick.
They typically forage along wetland fringes where soils are moist and grubs and earthworms are plentiful. Being a small bird, the woodcock can hide in some very dense thickets or the open woods quite easily. Combined with their amazing camouflage feathers and tendency to hold tight instead of flush, this can make finding the birds hard—even when you’re in the best woodcock habitat. A good pointing dog at your side is a huge asset.
Towards evening, they make their way to more open areas. This might include overgrown fields, forest meadows, or herbaceous swamps. In these locations, they will do their breeding displays in spring by ‘peenting’ and spiraling up high into the air, only to flutter back down to their singing ground and repeat. During summer, they transition to these open areas towards evening to roost and feed for the night. You should be able to find a few woodcock if a hunting property has forests of various ages, swamps, and open areas.
Regional habitat preferences for American woodcock
Now we’ll discuss the specific habitat types that the elusive timberdoodle uses in several different regions across the country. They occur roughly along the Atlantic coast from north to south and range as far west as a line between the Dakotas and Texas. This geographic range means the plant life can be very different from north to south and east to west. Typically, the Appalachian Mountains separate the major populations of woodcock, who stick to “their side” of the mountains as they migrate north and south. Western woodcock also use the Mississippi River basin as a woodcock migration flyway.
Midwest American woodcock habitat: The Central Flyway
The best habitat for woodcock is about the same for ruffed grouse in the Midwest. You can often come away with a mixed bag during a hunt. Start with areas that have been logged within the last couple decades and you’ll find the young, thick timber they require for security cover, nesting, and foraging. Quaking aspen-white birch stands seem to be king in this region, although maple and oak stands also offer a similar benefit. More open, mature forests may be used for nesting and foraging as well.
As you explore these areas or look at aerial maps, look for speckled alder swamps, gray or red-osier dogwood thickets, and riparian areas. These features can concentrate woodcock as they feed along the upland-wetland transition line. Also keep your eyes open for natural grassy openings, pastures/hayfields, blueberry barrens, and even new clear-cut areas. These spots serve as their breeding grounds in the spring and night time roost sites during the summer. You can often find woodcock flying near them towards evening. All that being said, spend your morning or daytime hunts walking the woods and wetland edges and then transition towards open areas as evening approaches.
Northeast American woodcock habitat: The Eastern Flyway
Like the Midwest, quaking aspen, white birch, and maple stands still occur in the Northeast. But there are also lots of beech, black cherry, and hickory forest stands that work just as well. Many of these forests contain an understory of hawthorn, Viburnum, and dogwood shrubs. These can form thickets for the birds to hide in. Woodcock use these forests primarily for foraging, nesting, and daytime cover.
In Maine, mixed forests with aspen, spruce, and fir seem to be preferentially used as long as the growth is not too dense. They rarely use dense conifer stands without a hardwood forest component, since the pine duff makes the soil too acidic for their primary food source: earthworms. In the upper Appalachian Mountains, young forests on ridge tops are utilized right along lowland valleys and hardwood forests. Old farmsteads with grown-over apple and crabapple orchards are good places to find woodcock throughout the New England area. Similarly, old fields with sumac and dogwood thickets can be great places to hunt towards the evening.
Southern American woodcock habitat
As the woodcock is a migratory bird species, most of them arrive at our southern states by December to overwinter. There are, however, some year-round residents on the northern edge of the south—Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas—provided the weather conditions don’t get too harsh. Even the Midwest offers opportunities at woodcock hunting. Winter habitat types are very different in species, but similar in function to their summer habitat.
In the Carolinas, woodcock seem to be more prevalent in floodplain forests adjacent to river systems and bottomlands along riparian areas. Unless they’re flooded. But if the soils are at least moist, foraging is easier for the birds. Instead of aspen, they may use various cane grass species, wax myrtle, privet, or briars for the same dense growth pattern and protection from predators. Clear-cut areas with regenerating oak and sweetgum saplings are great places for cover and daytime foraging. In Georgia, woodcock seem to use forested habitats and overgrown fields to roost at night.
If you haven’t tried woodcock hunting before, you should get out this fall or winter and try it! If you live east of the Mississippi River, you’ve got a great chance at catching birds as they move along their migration route. Use this guide to pinpoint some good habitats.
NatureServe. 2017. NatureServe Explorer: An online encyclopedia of life. Accessed at: http://explorer.natureserve.org
Ryan Lisson is a biologist and regular content contributor to several outdoor manufacturers, hunting shows, publications, and blogs. He is an avid small game, turkey, and whitetail hunter from northern Minnesota and loves managing habitat almost as much as hunting. Ryan is also passionate about helping other adults experience the outdoors for their first time, which spurred him to launch Zero to Hunt, a website devoted to mentoring new hunters.