Telling on Timberdoodles
Though they nest here and are common in Missouri, woodcock are rarely seen by all but early-season quail hunters and a few die-hard timberdoodle hunters. Their love of dense cover and damp ground puts them outside the realm of the casual birdwatcher.
There are two woodcock - the American woodcock and the Eurasian woodcock. With their long bills, their eyes set high on their heads and their ears located between their eyes and their bill, they are uniquely outfitted for probing in moist soil for earthworms and other food. They are affectionately called "timberdoodles," a name oddly fitting for a bird with such an unusual appearance.
Woodcock are shorebirds and are related to the sandpiper family (their closest relative may be the snipe). The American woodcock is most numerous east of the Mississippi River. Unlike other sandpipers they live in uplands. One researcher noted they like bottomland hardwood forests with thickets during the day and, at night, seek out fields with low wet spots.
Timberdoodles are mostly migratory birds in Missouri, but they do reside here in spring and early summer. I have watched them on warm spring evenings as the males fly to great heights, then spiral to earth in the effort to attract a mate. The birds seem to be most active between sunset and dark, but this display also takes place at dawn, and once on the ground the birds walk about making a sound described as "peenting." The males will spar with other males that dare intrude upon this display, ultimately mating with as many females as possible.
Woodcock are not widely hunted in Missouri. In one recent year it was estimated that 3,300 hunters bagged about 7,000 woodcock. Woodcock hunters only put in about two percent of the days afield that Missouri quail hunters expend. Some years the numbers of people hunting just for woodcock doubles; participation seems to fluctuate, probably in relation to how good the hunting is.
Not all woodcock hunters pursue the birds with blued steel and burnished walnut; some use long-handled fishing nets. One Michigan enthusiast called it "catch and release hunting." A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service publication notes that "Woodcock are difficult to count because of their cryptic coloration, small size, and preference for dense vegetation." One way migratory bird regulators count them is with singing ground surveys and the collection of woodcock wings from birds taken by hunters. But, to learn the secrets of woodcock, some hunters turn their attention to catching and banding the birds in the spring.
They use a pointing dog - just as in hunting - but when the dog finds and points a woodcock, the hunter cautiously walks forward and scans the ground for a hen woodcock and her chicks. Ideally he captures the hen first, and bands and releases her. Then he turns his attention to the chicks, catching them and placing them in a bag. After he believes he has caught all of them, he bands them one at a time and sets them in a depression while covering them with something such as a hat. There are usually four chicks, but occasionally five or six.
After all the chicks have been banded, the hunter removes the cover from the chicks and leads his dog away. The hen will be nearby, and will soon rejoin the chicks. A steady, cautious pointing dog is needed for this kind of work - just the kind of dog (usually a setter or Brittany) that grouse and woodcock hunters cherish anyway. Band returns from hunting season will tell the netters something about the travels of these birds.
Woodcock are precocious when they hatch and begin feeding themselves within a couple of days after hatching. Researchers think that by three days the chick's bill is long enough to probe the soil for food. Chicks will freeze if disturbed, relying on their natural camouflage for protection. The hen may flush and act crippled in an attempt to lead an intruder away from her chicks. Woodcock hens have been reported to carry a chick between their legs in flight - one of the few birds in the world to do so - but there are not many eye-witness accounts of this.
Of 16,155 birds banded in Michigan from 1931 through 1992, 929 were recovered, most of them in Michigan and most taken by hunters. Three of these birds were recovered in Missouri. Male woodcock, rather than being caught and banded like hens and chicks, are caught in mist nets on their singing grounds. In one recent year in Michigan, 86 people banded 717 woodcock. They banded 678 chicks, 36 hens and 3 cocks.
Eric Kurzejeski is a research biologist who keeps tabs on grouse and woodcock for the Missouri Conservation Department. "Woodcock do breed and reside here in Missouri," 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.