Blane Klemek: ‘Timberdoodle’ a very interesting migratory game bird
On a recent trip to the “Hunting Land”, which is an 80-acre parcel of Kittson County paradise that my brother-in-law and a good friend of mine own together, the youngest member of our Camp, my brother-in-law’s fourteen year-old son, Cole, slipped out for a quick evening hunt while the three of us sat in my camper planning our November deer hunt and solving the world’s problems.
Around sundown all three of us clearly heard a shot echo across the “eighty” just as we began wondering aloud about when Cole might return. A few minutes later the young hunter arrived in Camp, stepped inside my camper with his exuberant two-year old female yellow lab Piper leading the way, and promptly plopped onto the camper’s table a plump little bird and exclaimed, “Look at this!” I then grasped the little bird by the legs and held it at the end of an outstretched arm and said, “Timberdoodle!”
Of woodland creatures, the migratory American woodcock is certainly one of the most interesting Minnesota game birds. Related to shorebirds, the woodcock occupies nearly identical habitat that the ruffed grouse does and can be found throughout the eastern United States and southern Canada.
Woodcock inhabit all of Minnesota during the spring, summer, and fall seasons, but ranges primarily throughout ruffed grouse habitat in the central and northern regions of the state. Even so, woodcock regularly appear in unlikely habitats, especially during migration. Their wintering range includes the south Atlantic states and states along the Gulf of Mexico.
A small bird about eight inches long, the woodcock’s most conspicuous feature is its incredibly long bill of nearly three inches in length. The reason for such extent becomes obvious when the bird forages for insects. They use their bills to probe the moist woodland soils for worms and other soft-bodied invertebrates.
The ends of their beak are flexible, or prehensile to put it another way, which aids in their ability to detect and grasp prey underground. And their eyes — large and oddly positioned towards the back of their heads — allow them to see in the dark and detect danger behind, beside, and above them. Even their brains are unusually positioned upside down.
But perhaps the most fascinating of the woodcock’s many and appealing attributes is what happens when the male of the species returns to its breeding range in early spring. Here in Minnesota that can be as soon as mid-March.
Male woodcock seek out forested openings and fields near or within dense, early-successional forest habitat, especially areas with plenty of young aspen and alder. These areas, called “singing grounds”, are aggressively defended by the resident male from the intrusion of other male woodcock. And it is within these special places that male woodcock performs their amazing aerial courtship flight displays to attract females.
Beginning every day during the breeding season for about thirty minutes to an hour at dawn and dusk, the performance is both musical and spectacular. The male starts by “peenting,” as it’s called, from the ground, which is a nasal sounding vocalization produced from its throat. After numerous peents, the male abruptly departs into the air on a near straight vertical flight.
Special primary wing feathers produce a twittering noise as the male woodcock’s flight carries him some 100 to 300 feet above his singing ground. At the apex of the flight he begins a kind of corkscrew descent that creates a wonderfully musical and bubbly, chirping, and warbling song until, just moments before landing, he quits singing as he glides quietly to the ground nearly to the very spot he took off from. Almost immediately he begins his series of peents again. The flight, lasting about a minute, is repeated continuously until full daylight or darkness overcomes the woodland.
The reason behind the males’ aerial display is to attract a mate. And for reasons not entirely understood, a certain female that finds a certain male’s flight display particularly attractive then joins him at his singing ground where copulation occurs after his return to earth. Soon after, the female birds nest in nearby cover, often only a few hundred feet from the singing ground, in preferably dense, young aspen coverts.
Nesting habitat within the confines of young aspen offers the utmost in concealment and protection from predators, especially from the aerial attacks of raptors. In a cup-shaped depression on the ground, four blotchy brown eggs are laid and incubated for about three weeks. Upon hatching, the fully developed chicks leave the nest and follow their mother as she assists her brood in searching out insects and other foodstuffs. Two weeks later the chicks can fly, and by the time they reach the age of just four to six weeks, the young woodcock are on their own.
Subsisting on mostly a diet of earthworms and other soft-bodied insects, woodcock begin their annual migration when finding and feeding on such prey become too difficult as frozen ground conditions prevents them from doing so. Minnesota’s woodcock hunting season begins before migration occurs and extends through migration. This year’s Minnesota woodcock hunting season started September 21st and will end on November 5th.
The odd looking little American woodcock — a.k.a. timberdoodle — is an overlooked harbinger of spring and oft ignored game bird come autumn. Their incredible aerial courtship displays are a most entertaining way to spend an hour or so observing in the early springtime woodland, and they make for a sporting quarry and fine table fare, too, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
(Klemek is the DNR Area Wildlife Supervisor in Detroit Lakes. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)