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UMD woodcock study examines game bird’s habitat needs

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UMD woodcock study examines game bird’s habitat needs

DULUTH — The little birds with the long bills need lots of logs and branches on the ground to hide from predators.

That’s one of the findings in a study by the University of Minnesota-Duluth’s Natural Resources Research Institute that deciphered the type of forest that woodcock need to raise their young.

The study used the keen noses of Gordon setter hunting dogs to find woodcock nests in Itasca County and then place tiny transmitters on woodcock chicks, which allowed researchers to track their movements during their first weeks of life.

The study, first featured in a News Tribune story in June 2019, and led by NRRI’s Alexis Grinde, was funded with state conservation grants. It also looked at the golden-winged warbler and the veery — small songbirds that frequent the same habitat as woodcock.

The goal of the study was to find out why the three birds are doing fairly well in northern Minnesota forests but are declining steadily across much of their U.S. range.

“Across their range (in the U.S.) there has been a pretty significant, long-term decline of woodcock,” Grinde said. “But in Minnesota, where we have ample young forest due to active forest management, the birds have been pretty stable for about the last decade.”

Grinde said the birds seem to do best where they can get to multiple different types of forest in close proximity — young, medium and old trees, big and small, used for feeding, nesting and cover at various times of summer and early fall.

If scientists can figure out what types of forest habitat promote better nesting and survival among the three species, then they can provide those results to foresters and land managers to help conserve the species, Grinde said.

Small changes in logging practices, such as leaving more bigger logs and more branches spread out on the ground, could have a big impact on the birds. The key for woodcock chicks is that the logs are fairly large and are well-spaced, not in piles. Piles of slash or branches can be hiding spots for predators.

Killer chipmunks

In a 2019 file photo, Debbie Petersen holds a woodcock chick out for her dog, Riley, to sniff after the pair found the bird’s nest in Itasca County, Minn. Petersen and Riley have been helping researchers track woodcock chicks to determine what habitat they need to sustain their population. (Tyler Schank / Duluth News Tribune)

The key to the woodcock research has been Debbie Petersen and her Gordon setter hunting dogs, who teamed up to find the little birds between the time the chicks hatched but before they could fly.

Petersen and the highly trained bird dogs found and flushed the hens. Then Petersen slowly scoured the ground nearby to find the chicks. Once the chicks were fitted with their transmitters, they were set free to rejoin the hen, which is usually just a few feet away, squawking loudly about the intrusion.

For the first 30 days they were being tracked, the hen kept the chicks near logs on the ground. Because in early June, the forest is still pretty open, with fewer leaves on brush and trees than later in summer, scientists think the logs on the ground served as hiding places from predators. But they also could be using the logs and locations to look for their mainstay food — earthworms — which are common under rotting logs.

Believe it or not, chipmunks were the top predator of woodcock chicks in the study, although scientists say red squirrels, weasels and red fox are eating the birds, too. They found one of the transmitters in a pile of fox scat. Barred owls, goshawks and sharp-shinned hawks also are woodcock predators.

“We probably wouldn’t have believed chipmunks either if we hadn’t actually got lucky and seen it happening,” Grinde said. “There’s no shortage of things out there that want to eat a little woodcock.”

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