The Woodcock of Broadway: Part II

A guest post by Field & Stream Executive Editor Mike Toth

So let's pick up where I left this story yesterday....

The woodcock is a creature of habit. Anyone who has hunted them for a while knows that you can find woodcock in many of the same places, autumn after autumn. One fall, hunting the bottom of a ridge in northeastern Pennsylvania, I kicked up a woodie from a depression in the ground not much bigger than a utility sink. I missed the easy going-away shot. The next year, hunting the same bottom, another bird (maybe the same one; who knows?) flushed from the very same hole. Having had approximately 364 days to prepare for the shot, I managed to drop that bird.

Woodcock, apparently, are also slow to adapt to changes--changes such as a teeming city being built in the middle of an historic flyway. That's apparently why, a year ago this week, I found a dead woodcock near the corner of Broadway and 31st Street in New York City--just a few blocks from the Empire State Building, and a ten-minute stroll to where one million cold and not exactly sober people celebrate the New Year every December 31st by hooting and cheering as a glass ball descends a spire in Times Square at midnight. If you missed Part I of the story, click here.

Manhattan Island was probably a terrific place to hunt woodcock about 400 years ago--all those thickets and freshwater marshes must have made it one giant covert sitting out in the Hudson River. (You can't hunt woodies in the Big Apple now, of course. All that pigeon scent would confuse your dog's nose, and any birds you do flush would inconveniently level off right at stoplight height.) But the birds still fly over. And I wasn't the only person who had found a dead woodcock in the middle of the Big Bad City.

Michael Schiavone is a wildlife biologist with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. He's the guy who gets the letters and emails with photos of a woodcock lying at the base of a skyscraper, along with the question "What is this bird?"

He wasn't surprised to hear of my Broadway woodcock, and had a ready explanation.

"They're low-altitude migrators, and they fly a lot at night," Schiavone told me. "It may have become disoriented."

I'd known woodcock were low nighttime flyers, having stood at the edge of a New Jersey thicket one evening in late October and watched one woodcock after another pitch into the woods, their silhouettes backlit by the moon. But why fly directly over a city?

"There's a big corridor up the Hudson River valley," Schiavone said. "Your bird was probably following it."

Schiavone sent me maps that recorded woodcock sightings throughout New York State from 1980 to 1985 and again from 2000 to 2005. Neither map notes birds seen on Manhattan, but Staten Island--which lies directly southwest of the city, just across New York's Upper Bay, home to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty--is covered with sight denotations. While Staten Island isn't exactly bucolic, it has plenty of woodcock-friendly fields and woodlots. And the shortest route to Staten Island from the Hudson River valley goes directly over Manhattan.

Light pollution has been long known as a bird killer. My guess is that the city lights had confused the woodcock I'd found, as Schiavone theorized, hit a building, and fell to the sidewalk. It's injuries probably weren't immediately fatal, but severe enough to keep it from flying. That would explain why the guy who saw me photographing the bird said he'd seen it in the neighborhood days before.

The bird probably had succumbed to cold and starvation; the closest earthworm (actually, the closest earth) being in a small park almost a mile away. What's amazing is that it hadn't been run over by a taxi or a bicyclist or stepped on by a pedestrian, which is the fate of most injured pigeons in the City. The bird was intact and not mutilated, as if a hunter had just dropped it with a load of No. 8s.

I put the tail feather of this bird in its own envelope and put it in the shoebox with all my old hunting and fishing licenses, harvest tags, possession bands, and similar souvenirs from a lifetime of the field sports. It was, after all, a bird I'll never forget.