Telling on Timberdoodles
Kurzejeski says. He adds you might hear woodcock peenting and see the males displaying as early as late February, and suggests looking for an old field bordered by timber. Later, when the birds nest, the nests typically contain four eggs. Woodcock nest as early as any of the gallinaceous (ground nesting) birds like turkeys and grouse, and they will often have young hatched by mid-April.
"Woodcock hunting in Missouri is not a major pursuit, as it is in some northern states," Kurzejeski says. "We have up to 20,000 hunters and we shoot a few woodcock. The thing that is important for woodcock is habitat; they are a bird of early successional forests ... forest edges, old field habitats, places like that. Anything that sets back forest succession, like logging or burning, can be favorable for them.
"But again we are probably never going to have a bumper crop of resident birds. It's a resource that moves through here in the fall from northern states, like Wisconsin and Minnesota, and even southern Ontario, and back again in the spring." Many of the fall migrants ultimately winter in Louisiana.
Kurzejeski says that the population of woodcock in the central United States, including Missouri, is relatively stable. Population estimates are made using singing ground counts, hunter success records and the return of woodcock wings by hunters who have been asked to save one wing from each bird they shoot. The requirement for a migratory bird harvest permit gives the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service a registry of hunters they can survey at the end of the season.
Declines in numbers of timber-doodles in the eastern states can be blamed on the loss of habitat caused by urbanization, Kurzejeski adds. There has not been as much of this survey work done in Missouri because woodcock do not have a strong resident status here, and conservation agencies might not be able to increase the population of woodcock in Missouri even if it was desirable.
As a casual bird watcher, I am accustomed to seeing woodcock in spring in Missouri, but thought they went elsewhere during the dry summer months. Kurzejeski dispelled that notion.
"Local birds are just not that visible ... they prefer stands of saplings, creek bottoms, moist sites, because their main food is earthworms and things they can probe for," he says. "They are around all summer, it's just that they are not as visible as during migrations. That's when hunters find them. But there are woodcock that are around all year."
Dave Murphy, now a regional representative with the National Wild Turkey Federation, wrote as his masters in biology thesis, "Ecology of American Woodcock in Central Missouri." In his thesis, Murphy acknowledged that woodcock in Missouri are hard to locate in summer. He said scanty reports of woodcock from mid-May to mid-September showed the birds were clustered in forests along streams, near springs or marshes or on river islands.
Murphy noted that the dry conditions typical of a Missouri summer caused woodcock to concentrate in areas of damp soil, and that observations of them feeding near lawn sprinklers in summer showed the importance of moist soil to them.
In his summary, Murphy's thesis provides some important tips to hunters who follow timberdoodles into their brushy homes during the season. He wrote that two-thirds of the mid-Missouri woodcock were shot between Oct. 22 and Nov. 21, that a telephone survey of the most successful hunters revealed that they hunted along streams, and that quail hunters incidentally account for a large number of the woodcock shot in central Missouri.
Kurzejeski sometimes speaks to classes at Columbia elementary schools, and he takes bird mounts to show the kids. "Kids look at that little hinge on the end of the bill and try to figure out what it is," Kurzejeski says. "The lower one-third of the top of the birds' bill can be lifted to grasp a worm in its burrow. Woodcock are interesting to the students, and I tell them that the birds are adapted for a specific niche in nature. They don't know woodcock are around here, and some of them even think they are prehistoric looking."
Call them woodcock, timberdoodles or bog suckers, these birds are a delight to see. Watch for them on spring evenings over small upland fields surrounded by timber. You may see them fly high, then spiral to earth in a display they hope will attract a mate. And on early winter evenings, when the light is just about gone from the western sky, note the dark shape of a quail-size bird passing across the highway above your car; if it has a slender, 3-inch beak, you've just seen one of nature's unique characters.