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Ambuscading the timberdoodles – and analyzing their decline

Woodcock wrangler Jed Meunier sees a lot of sunsets during his research. Fieldwork in the twilight hours comes with the territory when you”re trapping timberdoodles for science.

Meunier, a graduate student in wildlife ecology at the UW-Madison’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, is part of a multi-year study of woodcock in Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota. The project is helping to reveal the reasons underlying woodcock population declines in the upper Midwest.

A 1998 survey showed that hunting success was below long-term averages, and that declines had been underway for more than a decade in the central and eastern U.S. management regions. In recent years, woodcock numbers in Wisconsin and the rest of the central region have been declining about 2 percent per year.

“This study investigates woodcock mortality and survival specifically related to the impacts of hunting. During this process, we”ve also begun to shed light on other aspects of the woodcock”s life history, such as migration timing and landscape-scale habitat use,” Meunier says. “For example, we”ve seen how drought influences woodcock habitat use and survival. With a large sample size and rigorous observation, we have a unique opportunity to better understand the timing of woodcock migration in the Central Flyway, along with learning more about survival and impacts of hunting.”

Meunier is studying two areas managed mainly for timber and recreation in north-central Wisconsin. One is a heavily hunted site in the Lincoln County Forest; the other is in the Tomahawk Timberlands industrial forest, which has restricted access and very little hunting pressure.

Field teams net woodcock in aspen clear-cuts and forest openings, fitting each bird with a tiny radio transmitter. The signal carries about a mile ground-to-ground, and much further with airplane tracking. (The radio collar weighs about one-sixth of an ounce; woodcock weigh about 5 to 7 ounces. Once they get used to them, the collars don”t seem to affect the birds” behavior, Meunier notes.)

The researchers found that woodcock often “bounce” between two or three different sites – a bird may spend a week at a different site, then bounce back to an original site. Rain often triggers these movements. A bird could spend days in a 50 x 50-yard plot, then bounce to another spot. A typical home range in this study area was about 15 acres, Meunier found.

Recaptures in 2003 of birds banded in 2002 showed they had strong site fidelity – usually. One bird banded in 2002 was shot in northern Minnesota in 2003, about 350 miles away from the Wisconsin site.

Cover types used changed drastically between 2002 and the drought year of 2003, from mostly seedling/sapling aspen to a mix of types, including edge areas and more mature woods.

The research has graphically illustrated the woodcock”s place in the food chain. Besides hunters, weasels are primary predators of woodcock – radio collars have led Meunier to numerous spots where weasels had cached headless woodcock carcasses. Owls and other birds of prey also dine on woodcock; barred and long-eared owls have followed the netting team on several nights with great interest. Mortality for males is highest in spring during courtship displays, when they make themselves more visible to predators.

A study of woodcock in five eastern states indicated woodcock in hunted and non-hunted areas had nearly identical survival rates. However, hunting seasons in the central region open two weeks earlier than in the eastern region, and surveys have shown that much of the annual woodcock harvest occurs early in the season. “Since very few migrant woodcock are believed to be in Wisconsin during September, hunting pressure is directed almost exclusively at local birds,” Meunier says.

“With what we have seen so far hunting does not appear to be a major factor in overall woodcock survival,” he says. “However, in Wisconsin, hunting”s impact on woodcock numbers varies from year to year. That”s why we need studies that run three years or more. For example, in 2002 we had two hunter-killed birds in the heavily hunted area, and zero in the low-pressure area. In 2003, we had 11 hunter-killed birds in the heavily hunted area, and five in the low-pressure area. Our last field season will be important in learning whether hunting mortality and overall woodcock survival during a third season falls within the variation we have seen thus far or adds to the overall variation between years.”

Meunier thinks the solution to declining woodcock numbers will be a bit more complicated than simply adjusting hunting pressure. “I think habitat is crucial, and the way we generalize woodcock habitat is misleading,” he says. “Habitat such as old fields, abandoned farms and more productive wet areas of aspen are overlooked. We often look at acres of seedling/sapling aspen as ideal habitat, but often that aspen is growing on marginal or poor sites, which means it”s slower growing, with lower leaf production for worms (their favorite food). I think old fields are really important, and that”s something difficult to manage for because it”s not lucrative.

“While researchers and wildlife biologists continue to attribute woodcock declines to habitat availability and quality, managers are still largely dependent on crude tools for estimating suitable woodcock habitat,” Meunier says. “Our aim is to incorporate several habitat variables that may have important implications for movement and survival of woodcock, and be of use to wildlife managers. In particular, we will look at woodcock use of shrubs, edges and soils in relation to changing environmental conditions.”

Long-term declines of woodcock populations emphasize the need for comprehensive regional studies, Meunier says.

“Additional information on the effects of hunting on regional populations of woodcock in conjunction with habitat needs and possible limiting factors are essential in providing insight for woodcock management,” he says. “We believe that with research results from the three cooperating states we will better understand the effects of hunting on survival, as well as begin to comprehend the intricacies of movements and habitat use and factors limiting woodcock in the Great Lakes region.”

The Wisconsin portion of this project is funded by the U.S. Geologic Survey, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Ruffed Grouse Society, Wisconsin Pointing Dog Association, North Central Wisconsin Chapter of the North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Region 3.
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rjc timberdoodles 9/04

SIDEBAR
Curbing Woodcock declines – what can we do?
Many factors probably contribute to woodcock declines across their range. “The easiest approach from a biologist”s view to curbing declines is often addressing proximate or immediate type problems which may or may not help a species in the long term,” Meunier says. “The more difficult task is addressing the ultimate or more general underlying problems.

“In the case of woodcock, changing season lengths and bag limits was hoped to be an adequate solution, but continuing declines and recent studies suggest that adjusting hunting is likely not sufficient and that we need to identify and address ultimate causes of declines.

“One logical place to turn to do that is to think about woodcock habitat. We have begun to do this and are finding woodcock habitat use and movements are quite variable and seem to be related to environmental conditions such as climate and soil. The fact that habitat use seems to change with changing environmental variables is not surprising, but complicates finding any easy solution to curbing declining woodcock populations,” Meunier says. “Of course there are many other complicating factors such as habitat availability and quality on the wintering grounds.”