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Blane Klemek: Tales of the Timberdoodle

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On a recent trip to the “Hunting Land,” an 80-acre parcel of Kittson County paradise my brother-in-law and a good friend of mine own, the youngest member of our camp, my brother-in-law’s 14-year-old son, Cole, slipped out for a quick evening hunt while we sat in my camper planning our November deer hunt and solving the world’s problems.

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Around sundown, all three of us clearly heard a shot echo across the “80” 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 2-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 of the ruffed grouse and can be found throughout the eastern United States and southern Canada.

Woodcock inhabit all of Minnesota during the spring, summer and fall, 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 8 inches long, the woodcock’s most conspicuous feature is its incredibly long bill of nearly 3 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 toward the back of the head — allow them to see in the dark and detect danger behind, beside and above. 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 perform their amazing aerial courtship flight displays to attract females.

Beginning every day during the breeding season for about 30 minutes to an hour at dawn and dusk, the performance is both musical and spectacular. The male starts by “peenting” 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 the ground. 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 Sept. 21 and will end Nov. 5.  

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.

BLANE KLEMEK is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com

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