Everything about the woodcock seems so British. The game bird’s English name was first recorded around 1050, and it’s even a surname first found in Norfolk where William Wdecoch was listed in the Pipe Rolls of 1175. The bird is still found on menus today, and if a restaurant in Great Britain respects the seasons, an autumn bill of fare will be a showcase of game birds with deep, rich flavors that include grouse, pheasant, partridge, snipe, and yes, woodcock. We’re not sure if today’s palate is quite “game” (ha, a pun) to eat the bird according to a traditional woodcock recipe: Mashing the trail on toast and serving with the skull on top so one can suck the brains out of the head. Yum.
According to Desmond Morris, the bird is also the source of the English Cocker Spaniel‘s name, a “cocker,” as in one who hunts for the woodcock.
While the English Cocker was developed in the 19th century expressly to retrieve woodcock (and quail), in its earliest days, it was lumped with the other spaniels and divided solely on the basis of size basis. Further differentiation in type became evident, and at the risk of veering off the point, the smaller, slightly blockier version of the spaniel came into popularity in the US and was understandably called the American Cocker Spaniel while the English Cocker, a slightly larger with longer legs and a shorter back, kept its British roots in its name.
Today, hunters (especially upland hunters) who prefer to shoot over an English Cocker do so because they admire the breed as a feisty flusher and natural retriever. Compact, solid, and efficient in navigating low thick cover and dense thicket, an English Cocker excels at working in gun range on their own to locate and flush game, and they can even work in tandem with a Pointer who stays steady on a bird while the Cocker “does his thing.” The breed is less likely to quarter than some of the other flushing breeds, but they’re also more likely to penetrate brush.
Image: “English Cocker Spaniel Flushing Woodcock” by John Trickett is available for purchase as a print here