The Wild Side: Studying the woodcock
I have had a few folks share that they have heard woodcock singing recently. The American Woodcock, also known as timberdoodle, bogsucker, and several other names, are a migratory gamebird that breed, nest, and raise their young in Wisconsin and several other Midwestern and New England states, even up into Canada. While some migratory birds (like Canada geese) fly high in the atmosphere, using high level transport winds to help them cruise at 40 miles per hour or more, the woodcock flies just above tree height, generally covering 50 miles a night or less. They head north in February, March and April, heading back to the area where they hatched to find a mate.
The male advertises by putting on a little song and dance for the ladies at dawn or dusk. He starts by making a repeated call on the ground that sounds like “peent, peent”. Then he heads to the air, flying upward 100 to 300 feet, hovering in circles up there for 30 seconds or so. Then he spirals or zigzags his way back down to the ground, singing another song as he descends. Female woodcocks find this irresistible, and are lured to the singing grounds, where they hope to breed with this talented male. The male plays no other role in nesting, hatching or raising the young.
As you may imagine, this kind of display makes this bird somewhat easy for a biologist to locate and survey. We survey other birds during breeding season as well, like gobbling turkeys, drumming grouse and dancing sharp-tailed grouse because their courtships are relatively visible/audible and reliable. In fact, biologists have been performing roadside surveys for the American woodcock since 1968. Currently there are 25 states with about 1,600 survey routes, half run on alternating years (so about 800 surveys a year).
Last year, Wisconsin participants submitted data from 67 survey routes to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The number of birds increased slightly last year, which is good news, because we have been on a long term decline. Scientists attribute the decline to a loss of habitat; woodcock need young forests, and much of Wisconsin’s forest ownership has aged beyond the point of greatest benefit to these birds.
Take advantage of this great weather; head out to an area where a timber sale occurred within 5 years or so, around dawn or dusk, and keep your eyes and ears open for their trademark song and dance. If you have lived in the Northwoods for any length of time, you likely have heard their call, even if you didn’t know where it was originating.
There are a lot of interesting facts about the American Woodcock-its upper mandible (the top part of the beak) is hinged so it can open the tip of the bill while stuck in the mud to grab juicy worms. It is the only bird I know of that, when the chicks are hatching, they crack the egg open lengthwise-maybe because of the long bill? Their large, bulgy eyes are set high and near the back of their head so they can see pretty well behind them when they are probing the mud; this helps them watch for predators. To learn more about the American woodcock, check out the official website, timberdoodle.org.
There are other kinds of wildlife that depend on younger forests, including Ruffed grouse, Whip-poor-whills, Golden-winged Warblers, Brown thrashers and more. Since a large portion of my job includes spreading the word about the Young Forest Initiative, you can count on hearing more about what landowners and property managers can do to increase young forest in areas best suited for that kind of habitat. We will be having some free, family-friendly forest ecology workshops during summer vacation-stay tuned!
Jeremy Holtz is a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin DNR in Rhinelander. To contact him, call (715) 365-8999.