New management techniques offer hope for a species in decline
This article was commissioned by the Great Lakes Timber Professionals Association. Please note that “woodcock” is both singular and plural.
Ask anyone who’s ever seen a woodcock to describe this unusual bird, and right away you’ll see a smile and a spark of amusement. You’ll probably hear about the birds’ slightly odd appearance, their unique springtime courtship displays, or the thrill of encountering them during hunting season.
But another characteristic that makes the birds unique has also forced the species into decline: the woodcock requires a variety of young forest habitats. Habitat destruction and degradation, largely due to urban development and forest maturation, has resulted in a decline in woodcock numbers over much of their range, which includes the Great Lakes states during the spring, summer, and fall. Researchers and foresters are working together to implement and test new management practices that they hope will stabilize the birds’ population.
‘Fascinating little birds’
“They’re probably my favorite bird,” said Amber Roth, a biologist contracted by the non-profit Wildlife Management Institute to implement the Upper Great Lakes Young Forest Initiative. “There’s a lot of interesting things about them that really sets them apart.”
Perhaps most striking is their endearing, slightly odd appearance. They’re plump birds, about the size of a robin, with large eyes set far back on their heads and a long, narrow bill. They’re perfectly camouflaged for their woodland habitat, with delicate mottling of black, browns and greys. As game birds go they’re on the small end of the spectrum, with a full-grown female averaging around 7 ounces and a male slightly less. Perhaps due to their size and appearance, woodcock have earned a number of affectionate nicknames, including timberdoodle and wood snipe.
Steve Wilds, another contract biologist with the Upper Great Lakes Forest Initiative, said he’s fond of woodcock for a variety of reasons. “They’re fascinating little birds,” he said. “Their springtime courtship ritual is really unusual, and it’s fun to go see them. They’re migratory birds, so even though they’re small, they’re tough little buggers: they withstand the rigors of migration and come back to nest in the north country year after year. They’re an odd-looking bird, with their long beaks and small round size, but when you look at them closely they’re really a pretty bird, with their subtle colors. They’re neat birds for hunting; we can enjoy them as food and we also have the companionship of the people who get together each fall to hunt. I like the wild places where they live. There are lots of things about this bird that I really enjoy.”
Although woodcock are classified as shorebirds, they’re more likely to be found in young forests than along beaches or mudflats. They require a variety of habitat types during different stages in their lives, and they also move between diurnal and nocturnal habitat types during any given 24-hour period.
Life cycle and habitat needs
Woodcock overwinter in the southeastern and south-central United States, spending their entire lives in the US or Canada. They return to the north country earlier than most other migrants, and their arrival in the Great Lakes states is one of the first signs of spring.
Male woodcock conduct elaborate courtship displays soon after their arrival in their breeding range or even during their springtime migration. At sunset they fly from feeding areas to their courtship display sites, also called singing grounds. There they call for a short time and then fly hundreds of feet in the air in a spiraling ascent. The narrow, unique shape of their primary feathers creates a whistling sound as they fly. When they reach the apex of their ascent they add a fluid-sounding vocalization and return to the point where they started. They repeat this pattern for about an hour.
Open or brushy areas in early successional stages are the males’ preferred singing grounds. Clearings, logging roads, and empty loading deck sites serve the purpose well.
Nesting females require an entirely different habitat type. A female builds a simple nest of just a few sticks and leaves in a small depression on the ground. Females generally seek alder thickets or brushy areas in well-drained upland sites, often with a tree, shrub, or log stump nearby.
Within 24 hours of hatching the chicks follow their mother from the nesting site to lower, moister feeding sites, and they don’t return to the nest. “It’s amazing how fast these little chicks grow up,” Roth said. “Within two weeks they can fly. Childhood is short for a woodcock chick.” Woodcock prefer to feed in areas that are moist and brushy, with soils rich in organic matter. They use their long bills to probe the soil for earthworms, their major food supply, as well as insect larvae and other invertebrates.
Throughout their life cycle, with the exception of nesting females, woodcock spend their days in feeding habitat and seek out different habitat to display or roost in at night. These roosting areas are typically open, like recent clear-cuts on the young end of succession. A particular woodcock might have a large overall home range despite the fact that it actually uses only several small areas – feeding areas, singing grounds, and roosting areas – within that larger range.
Restoring young forest habitat
Ten years ago, numerous state and federal agencies, along with the WMI and the Ruffed Grouse Society, formed the Woodcock Task Force. The partnership has formed regional habitat initiatives, including the Great Lakes Young Forest Initiative, with the goal of creating healthy tracts of young forest through a variety of management techniques including logging, controlled burns, and planting native tree and shrub species. Roth said these young forest initiatives started out being woodcock-focused and have now evolved to benefit all wildlife species that depend on young forests and shrubland habitat.
Part of Roth’s work includes working on demonstration areas, including the Lake Tomahawk Demonstration Area in northern Wisconsin, that are open to the public. “The demonstration areas are meant to highlight the management options that are available for creating this kind of habitat,” Roth said. “It’s a place to bring professionals and private landowners, a place to do field trips and workshops.” The Great Lakes region includes numerous demonstration areas; visit www.timberdoodle.org for more information.
Roth and Wilds say that one of the main ways forest managers can help restore and maintain woodcock habitat is to stagger harvests of large blocks of aspen. Rather than harvesting all trees at the same time, forest managers can set up a series of sales over several decades, creating forest patches of various age classes.
The Lake Tomahawk demonstration area is on the Northern Highlands-American Legion State Forest, and state foresters are adapting some management plans there. “There’s kind of this big bubble of aspen coming,” said Craig Dalton, a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources forester on the NH-AL. “When the forest was first started back at the turn of the century a lot of it was cut over. It’s been managed on a roughly 50-year rotation ever since, and it’s coming due again in about 15 years.” In an effort to spread out the age classes, Dalton said foresters will break up what formerly would have been one large harvest into smaller ones spread out over several decades. “When we have a bigger block of homogeneous aspen, we’re not setting that up all at once,” he said. “We’re doing patches, we’re going to hold some of it late and cut some of it early.”
Another management technique involves cutting strips of alder to provide more varied habitat. “If you don’t disturb alder it gets old and decadent; it starts to go horizontal and it’s hard for birds to move through,” Roth said. “If we reinvigorate the alder, woodcock have an easier time feeding and it still offers them protection. Since the strips are cut perpendicular to the moisture gradient, it also helps control erosion and provides a feeding gradient during dry periods.” Roth said the strips can be cut in the winter, when the ground is frozen, using a brushhog, brontosaurus, or a tree-mulching extension available for many types of equipment.
Cooperating for a better future
Wilds is optimistic about the outlook for woodcock and other young forest dwellers. “Overall, we have a pretty healthy forest products industry in the Great Lakes states, and people understand the value of cutting and the importance of wood products,” he said. “It’s an education process to get people to understand that it’s not all old growth, or not all young growth that we’re looking for, but rather that continuum within the forest that provides habitat for all of the animals that live there.”
Lori Compas is a freelance writer, photographer, and communications consultant based in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin.
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