It’s a weird-looking bird with a too-long beak and large eyes set high on its head, as if someone assembled it with spare parts.
But fans of woodcock admire the little robin-sized game bird for its distinctiveness and erratic dipsy-doodle flight — which makes shooting them on the wing so challenging.
And, despite a questionable reputation as table fare by some people, “timberdoodle” hunters also tout them as good eatin’.
“They are such unique birds, a shorebird that lives in the forest, beautiful, with their spring courtship sky dance,’’ said Tom Cooper, an avid woodcock hunter and wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s migratory bird division in Bloomington. “I enjoy hunting them. They are tough to hit, that’s for sure.’’
Cooper rejects the notion they are unpalatable.
“They do have a bit of a liver flavor; I marinate them in Italian dressing and grill them,” he said. “The key is to not overcook. They’re pretty tasty.’’
Minnesota’s woodcock season opened Saturday and runs through Nov. 4. New this year: A federal change boosts the possession limit to nine birds, triple the three-bird daily limit.
While many ruffed grouse hunters will encounter woodcock in thick, young aspen stands, and will sometimes shoot them as “bonus’’ birds, hunters like Cooper specifically target timberdoodles, and view grouse as ancillary action.
The heavy leaf cover in September makes bagging woodcock even more difficult.
“It’s tough hunting the first couple of weeks,’’ Cooper said.
Hunters are shooting mostly local birds, but woodcock range far into Canada, and when they migrate through Minnesota — the peak generally is in mid-October — the action can be hot.
“I’ve seen 30 to 40 flushes in a couple of hours,’’ said Cooper, 42, who does woodcock research and helps compile the Fish and Wildlife Service’s national woodcock population status report. “Just like duck hunting, you have to be there when they are there.’’
A niche species
Until last year, an average of about 12,000 Minnesota hunters pursued woodcock annually. The estimated number of hunters hit 14,000 last fall, up from 10,000 in 2011 and the highest in 12 years. Those hunters shot about 32,000 birds, the most since 2009. Nationally, hunters bagged about 280,000 woodcock.
Steve Merchant, Department of Natural Resources wildlife program manager, said he has no explanation for the apparent 40 percent increase in woodcock hunters last year.
“I’m skeptical,’’ he said. The information comes from the DNR’s annual small game hunter survey, and he has asked his staff to review the data.
Regardless, woodcock hunters are a niche species, like their quarry. In comparison, there were an estimated 97,000 ruffed grouse hunters, 90,000 duck hunters and 84,000 pheasant hunters last year.