Plenty of good sportsmen have never shot or even seen a woodcock, just as Tickell says was his case, his first impressions of the bird, in Nepal, being as follows: " Imagining from the general resemblance of the two birds that a woodcock must fly like a snipe, I was much taken aback, when hailed to ' look out,' at perceiving what appeared like a large bat coming with a wavering, flagging flight along the little lane-like opening of the wood where I was posted ; but in an instant, ere I had made up my mind to fire, the apparition made a dart to one side, topped the bordering thicket, and seemed to fall like a stone into the covert beyond."
When this queerly behaving bird is brought to bag, it is seen to be indeed like a snipe in the very long straight bill, overshot at the tip, and the peculiarly far-back position of the eyes, seen to perfection in this bird, in which they are very large ; but the bird is as big as a good pigeon, and pigeon-like in its shortness of leg and absence of bare skin above the hock, while the plumpness and short tail rather suggest a duck, and the broad wings sufficiently explain the un-snipe-like flight. The mottled brown plumage, though very characteristic when one knows it, has nothing to catch the eye at first sight, except perhaps the three broad black bands across the back of the head, which are the peculiar coat-of-arms of all true woodcock.
It is worth while going into these details about so well known a bird, for Blanford says black-tailed godwits were sold in the Calcutta Bazaar as woodcock, and though this was not so in my time, it shows that many people did not know this valued sporting bird and table delicacy by sight; for though this godwit is much about the same size in body as a woodcock, and has a very similar bill, it has a long neck and typical waders' legs, and a quite different plumage from that above described. I only once saw a woodcock in the Calcutta Bazaar, and that looked as if it had not been killed recently; and, as a matter of fact, a woodcock found anywhere away from the hills in India may be put down as "lost or strayed," though in Burma they come down to the plains much more than in India. In the hill-regions they occur as far south as Ceylon and Tenassarim, and woodcock-shooting is quite an established sport in the Nilgiris. Mr. Stewart Baker sums the matter of the woodcock's Indian distribution up by saying that " anywhere between November 1 and March 1 on hills over 4,000 feet elevation one should be able to find woodcock if sufficient time and trouble is given to the search, and there are suitable places for the birds to lie up in." Such suitable places are where woodland cover is near swampy spots in which the birds can feed, and these spots in hills are naturally usually by streams, which has given rise to the idea that the woodcock especially requires running water. It is, everywhere except in the Himalayas, a cold-weather bird, but in that range at heights of over ten thousand feet, it is a well-known breeder, as it is all across Europe and Northern Asia.
What with its goodness for food, and its unmistakeable appearance— testified to by its many native names, Simkukra in Kumaon and Nepal; Bumpal or Dhabha in Chitral; Chinjarole in Chamba; Kangtruk in Manipur; Daodidap gadeba, in Cachar; Simpso Khlan, among the Khasis; Gherak, in Drosh; and Chustruck in Gilgit— this bird always attracts attention everywhere, in India as well as in Europe, and the uncertainty of finding it adds to the value put on it. And, as it rises without warning, and not unless it can help it, and has perforce to dodge if its line of flight takes it through trees, shooting it is generally a triumph. Hume, however, regarded it in India as a sluggish flier and an easy shot, only worth firing at for its goodness on the table, but this experience is, by no means universal, though, like snipe, the bird tends to be tamer and easier to hit than in England.
The fact that the woodcock digs his bill in the ground, and swallows his worms something like a duck, not tossing them down his throat by an up- jerk of the bill, as a crane or stork would do, has no doubt given rise to the idea that he lives by suction, this notion being aided by his very rapid digestion. He is really a far greater glutton than the much maligned vulture, which only sees food, probably, about once a week, and then has to scramble for it, while the woodcock, essentially a hermit, "does himself well" every night of his life, and can put away an incredible number of worms— a tame bird will eat a cupful at a sitting. Insects, both in the larval and adult states, are also eaten, and even frog-spawn does not come amiss ; the bird's nights must be pretty fully occupied in getting enough food, for it is strictly a night-bird, and seldom moves by day.
At evening and grey dawn too, the bird's courting manoeuvres are carried on ; his love-sport resembles that of the snipe in being aerial, but he does not drum, but flies to and fro, in crescent paths of fifty to two hundred yards, uttering alternate croaks and squeaks, and getting lower at each turn, though at first above the trees ; this is called " roding " on the continent. At such times the birds are easily shot, but this is mere poaching, as both parents are needed to attend on the young. These are beautiful little creatures with comparatively short bills and velvety tortoise-shell down, and when the family has to be moved in order to avoid a foe, or even to seek food, the old birds, or at any rate the hen, actually carries them, a habit very rare in birds. It was long a puzzle how this was done, and one picture even depicts the old bird with the baby riding pick-a¬back, but as a matter of fact observers both in Europe and in India have established that they are really held between the legs; and they are carried thus even when half-grown. Four-is the number of the family, the eggs producing them are laid on a mere bed of the dead leaves found in the bird's usual haunts; they are of some shade of drab or buff in ground¬colour, and rather sparingly marked with brown and grey spots of various tones and distribution; they are about an inch and three quarters in length. Indian eggs are not smaller than European, as Mr. Baker points out, and he also shows that the idea that the birds themselves are smaller in India is due to the fact that it is the immature birds which are shot, these being those which migrate south; but no Indian specimen has yet been shot weighing as much as a pound, which they often do ; in Europe. The idea that the plumage shows any difference with age has also been exploded, but some individual birds are much greyer than others.