From the archives of Ruffed Grouse Minnesota
Spring is a magical time here in the Northwoods. Those that choose to live in milder climes dont know the joy that comes with hearing the chickadee breeding call and the trickle of melt water, or just seeing the earth again. There is pleasure to be found here, even in mud season. The re-awakening of the natural world is a welcoming event re-affirming that, despite the trials of modern man, the world continues to turn on its axis.
People have many rites of spring spring cleaning, car washes, taxes, raking the lawn, etc. Wild things also have rites of spring, but they are largely associated with migration and breeding. Observing these phenomena can greatly enhance your enjoyment of a relatively drab and messy season.
The American woodcock is one of the most interesting denizens of our forests. This unique and popular game bird spends its winters along the Gulf Coast and warmer months in northern forests (much like many Minnesotans!). They follow the receding snowline north, arriving on their breeding grounds in March, often while there are still patches of dirty snow scattered about.
The woodcock courtship ritual is known as the sky dance, and was described best by Aldo Leopold in his seminal work, A Sand County Almanac. He describes in detail how the woodcock begins its ritual when daylight reaches exactly 0.05 foot-candles. The male selects a choice opening in the forest, one with a bare spot in the middle to allow him to strut on his stubby little legs. He repeatedly utters a nasal peent call in an attempt to attract a mate. Then, without warning he takes to the sky, flying a tight rising spiral above his stage. Using three thin, specially-designed wing feathers, he creates a high twittering sound in flight. At the apex of his spiraling climb, he flutters back to earth while uttering a melodious warbling call and begins the cycle anew. This dramatic scene unfolds mornings and evenings from late March until June.
Woodcock numbers have been steadily declining over the past 30-40 years. Within just the past 15 years we have seen woodcock harvests diminish by over 60%! Most experts agree that hunting levels are not the cause of the decline, but as is the case in most such instances, it a loss of habitat that is reducing bird numbers. Woodcock love brushy areas and dense young hardwood forests. They feed primarily on earthworms, so preferred habitat will have rich, moist soils. Old farm fields reverting to alder brush offer ideal habitat, as do young aspen stands coming in thick after clearcut harvesting.
The Ruffed Grouse Society works to create and maintain woodcock habitat throughout the eastern United States. We urge public and private land managers to maintain old fields in a brushy state through regular mowing or burning, create and maintain wildlife openings as peenting grounds, and manage forests (particularly in moist areas) to provide the density needed by these fascinating animals.
People often ask why woodcock are declining in the face of all of the young forest we have created in the past 30 years. Remember, these are migratory birds. They need good habitat here, on the Gulf Coast, and at many stopover points in between. Without the habitat we create through active forest management, there would be far fewer sky dances to watch as a Rite of Spring!
Leopold said, The drama of the sky dance is enacted nightly on hundreds of farms, the owners of which sigh for entertainment, but harbor the illusion that it is to be sought in theaters. They live on the land, but not by the land. Live by the land and go out to see this wonderful natural phenomena.
-Rick Horton is formerly a MN Regional Wildlife Biologist for the Ruffed Grouse Society.
The Minnesota Grouse Management Plan
(MN DNR Released September, 2011)
The purpose of this management plan is to communicate the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' ruffed grouse long-range management goals, measurable management indicators and targets, identified conservation drivers, and management issues. Preliminary management strategies are also identified.
A guiding principle of this management plan is DNR's conviction that management strategies implemented for ruffed grouse will contribute to the overall health of Minnesota's forested landscapes. Forest management practices that are ecologically sound, and socially and economically beneficial to Minnesota citizens, will result in sustainable forests and sustainable ruffed grouse populations.
(read the rest of the article)
About Woodcock Minnesota
Woodcock Minnesota is a non-profit, volunteer run organization dedicated to funding specific research that benefits the American woodcock in our state. Woodcock Minnesota is comprised of woodcock hunters and woodcock watchers who want to improve the plight of our favorite bird, which also benefits numerous other species that depend on early succession forest habitat.
Read the rest of the article
About the Ruffed Grouse Society
Established in 1961 the Ruffed Grouse Society (RGS) is the one international wildlife conservation organization dedicated to promoting conditions suitable for ruffed grouse, American woodcock and related wildlife to sustain our sport hunting tradition and outdoor heritage. Read the rest of the article...