Of Woods and Woodcock
Article #196, May 2013
By Bill Cook
Woodcock are among my favorite species of spring, although I cannot claim to hunt them, at least not with a shotgun. But I do anxiously wait to hear the males calling on their dancing grounds. It’s one of the surest signs of spring.
The vocalization of a woodcock is called a “peent”. It’s a fair approximation of the sound if you say the word with a nasal tone or if you have a stuffed-up nose. If you’re fortunate enough to know about local peenting grounds, you can hear this understated plea during the twilight hours of either dawn or dusk. I prefer dawn.
My old farm sports two such peenting grounds, sometimes three. I regularly burn these fields to keep the brush at bay. I wouldn’t want to lose my woodcock from negligence. I raised three children with the knowledge of the woodcock mating reverie. I hope to introduce grandchildren to these birds.
The woodcock, sometimes called a “timberdoodle” is an odd looking bird that you would not think could possibly fly, due to its small size and overly large beak. Yet, they spend their winters in the southern states.
Nobody more eloquently described the “sky dance” of the woodcock than Aldo Leopold in his landmark book, “A Sand County Almanac”. The book should be required reading for everyone. I can trace my interest in land management to when I read the book at age twelve. I still have that beat-up 1949 edition in my library.
On my morning walks, I listen for the plaintive peents, often heard with the winnowing of snipe. On weekends, when I have more time, I’ll sometimes stalk the source of the sound and wait. I know where the peenting grounds are and arrive early, before the birds. Occasionally, I’ll get to see the bird as the morning begins to lighten. More often, I’ll spook them away. I can tell by the rapid whistling sounds their wings make, a bit like a mourning dove.
On successful stalking episodes, I’ll hear the male begin to peent. Eventually, on some mornings, he’ll begin a lazy spiral into the sky, maybe a hundred feet or more, followed by a whistling nose dive, and then land in the same spot that he began. The peenting resumes.
I have never seen this elaborate dance attract a female. However, it must work, as evidenced by the return of woodcock to my old fields each spring.
Woodcock are among a growing number of bird species, and other taxa, whose numbers are dwindling due to habitat loss. They like habitats that we often label as waste land; places to put parking lots, retirement homes, and sub-divisions.
Young forests, in the brushy stage, are ideal. Aspen, alder, willows, and upland brush make for good woodcock habitat structure. Young forests and upland brush are becoming increasingly uncommon, probably at about the same pace as woodcock are becoming increasingly uncommon.
The “Upper Great Lakes Young Forest Initiative” was begun in 2007 to help encourage habitat retention that favors woodcock and their allies. The Initiative has a tough row to hoe. Young forests are created by disturbance, such as fire and logging. In some quarters, these activities are inappropriately regarded as negative. Much to the contrary, they provide habitat for early successional species, landowner revenue, forest products, and employment. It’s management that pays, in more ways than dollars.
There exists a large body of science, and decades of on-the-ground experience, that demonstrate the many positive aspects of forest management, especially clearcutting, when applied to the right forest and the right time. Of course, early successional species are only one suite of wildlife, albeit a threatened one. Many of these species live on the short end of the stick of public perception.
I well know the science and like to think that I can explain it to most people. However, I have to admit, nothing grabs my attention like the promise of listening to the spring peenting of the woodcock, hearing the whistle of its high speed flight, and the hope of witnessing the sky dance.
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Bill Cook is an MSU Extension forester providing educational programming for the Upper Peninsula. His office is located at the MSU Forest Biomass Innovation Center near Escanaba. The Center is the headquarters for three MSU Forestry properties in the U.P., with a combined area of about 8,000 acres. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 906-786-1575.
by Bill Cook, Forester/Biologist, Michigan State University Extension, 6005
J Road, Escanaba, MI 49829
906-786-1575 (voice), 906-786-9370 (fax), e-mail: email@example.com
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