Duluth – Small birds with long bills need lots of logs and branches on the ground to hide from predators.
This is one of the findings of a study by the Natural Resources Research Institute at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, which deciphered the type of forest that woodcocks need to raise their young.
The study used the deep noses of Gordon Setter hunting dogs to find woodcock nests in Itasca County and then placed small transmitters on woodcock chicks, allowing researchers to track their movements during their first weeks of life.
The study, first featured in a June 2019 News Tribune story, and led by NRRI’s Alexis Grinde, was funded with a state conservation grant. It also saw golden-winged warblers and heroic songbirds that often have similar habitats as woodcocks.
The goal of the study was to find out why the three birds are doing quite well in the forests of northern Minnesota, but are in steady decline across much of their US range.
“There has been a fairly significant, long-term decline of woodcocks across their range (in the US),” Grinde said. “But in Minnesota, where we have enough young forests because of active forest management, the birds have been pretty stable for the past decade.”
Grinde said the birds perform best where they can, close to many different types of forests – young, medium and old trees, large and small, feeding, nesting at various times of summer and early fall. and are used for cover.
If scientists can figure out which types of forest habitats promote better nesting and survival among the three species, they could provide those results to foresters and land managers to help conserve the species. Yes, Grinde said.
Small changes in logging practices, such as dropping larger logs and more branches spreading across the ground, can have a big impact on birds. The key to woodcock chicks is that the logs are large enough and well spaced, not in piles. Stacks of slush or branches can be hiding places for predators.
Key to woodcock research is Debbie Peterson and her Gordon Setter hunting dog, who teamed up to find small birds amongst the time they could fly.
Peterson and highly trained bird dogs found the chickens and shed them. Peterson then slowly scoured the nearby land to find the chicks. Once the chicks have been fitted with their transmitters, they are freed to reconnect with the hen, which is usually only a few feet away, screaming 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 very open, with brush and less foliage on trees than in later summer, scientists think that logs on the ground serve as hiding places from predators. But they can also use woods and places to look for their main food – earthworms – which are common under rotting wood.
Believe it or not, chipmunks were the top predators of woodcock chicks in the study, although scientists say red squirrels, weasels and red foxes are also eating the birds. He found one of the transmitters in a pile of Fox Scat. Barred owls, bovines and fangs are also hyena hunters.
“We probably wouldn’t have believed chipmunks if we weren’t really lucky and didn’t see it happen,” Grinde said. “There’s no shortage of things out there that want to eat a little woodcock.”