Volunteers help DNRE biologists band woodcockAgency: Natural Resources
For the majority of pointing-dog enthusiasts, nothing compares to autumn, when hunting season is open and hunters can spend their days with their best friends in pursuit of upland birds. But for a small minority of bird-dog aficionados, there's even more fun to be had in spring.
Spring is the other bird season: banding season, when hunters exchange their firearms for landing nets and pursue woodcock with the express purpose of capturing them, only to release them as soon as they've been festooned with small metal leg bands.
From April until June, a small contingent of dedicated bird-dog owners takes to the wood lots of Michigan to locate and band the needle-nosed migrants. The bands that are returned by hunters provide important information to wildlife managers about the population, distribution and life history of woodcock.
Woodcock are migratory birds that are more closely related to shore birds than they are to other upland game birds, but have adapted to forested habitat. Woodcock prefer early-age forests with moist soils.
Mottled brown birds with long beaks that they use to feed by probing the moist earth for invertebrates, woodcock are so well camouflaged that their first instinct, when approached, is to freeze. That makes them perfect for pursuit with pointing dogs.
Michigan leads the nation in woodcock banding, largely because of its volunteer army of woodcock banders. Every year, volunteers spend more than 1,000 hours in Michigan wood lots, banding 1,000 or more mostly recently hatched woodcock.
Michigan has been in the forefront of banding since 1960, when federal wildlife officials asked state natural resources agencies in woodcock production states to help band large numbers of woodcock for a population study. Michigan wildlife biologist G. A. "Andy" Ammann participated in the banding effort and helped refine the technique of using pointing dogs to locate woodcock broods.
By 1965, six people, mostly professional wildlife biologists, were actively banding woodcock in Michigan. But as time progressed, Ammann and others trained volunteers to join the effort. By the mid 1990s, there were about 100 volunteers banding woodcock in the state.
The drill is fairly simple: Volunteers take to the forests with their dogs. The dogs point nesting or brooding woodcock hens. Using long-handled nets, the volunteers capture the hens -- if they can - which they'll band before they release them. But they also look for nests or chicks on the ground.
When a brooding hen is flushed, she'll typically fly just a short distance and then feign a broken wing, a behavior designed to draw the bander away from the chicks. It's a tip-off to banders that chicks are present.
The mottled brown and yellow chicks blend perfectly into the early spring vegetation; it takes eagle eyes to spot them as they remain motionless, waiting for the perceived danger to pass. After the banders have searched the area visually, identifying what chicks they can find, the banders gently pick up the chicks. That usually prompts the chicks to start peeping; the calls typically spur the remaining chick to begin running, making them more visible.
The banders work quickly to minimize stress to the chicks. They measure the chick's beak to help determine its age. (Woodcock are born with a 14 mm beak and it grows 2 mm a day). They attach a thin metal band with a serial number to the chick's leg and record all relevant data. Then they release the chicks. The hen and chicks soon re-unite. In fact, many woodcock banders recount having a hen fly back and sit nearby while they band the chicks.
Not just anyone can band woodcock. Would-be woodcock banders must attend a mandatory workshop, study under the guidance of an experienced bander, and have their dogs certified as able to perform the task without jeopardizing the birds' safety. The Department of Natural Resources and Environment issues permits to allowing individuals to band woodcock.
Randy Strouse, a retired skilled tradesman in an auto plant, has been banding woodcock since 1991. Strouse says he tries to spend at least 60 hours in the woods banding each spring and usually bands more than 50 birds, though he has surpassed 80 some years.
"I hunt, just like anyone else, but if I see a woodcock on the ground and it has a band, I won't shoot it when it flushes," Strouse said. "If it's this year's bird, you wouldn't be able to gather any information from it."
Strouse will gladly tell you he'd rather band woodcock than hunt them.
"The banding community really likes doing this," Strouse said. "If I had to give up one or the other, I'd give up hunting."
Banding woodcock makes it possible for hunters to contribute to conservation efforts in a hands-on manner. And it makes the whole effort practical.
"Without the volunteer banders, we wouldn't be able to band anywhere near the number of woodcock we band each year," said Al Stewart, the DNRE's upland game bird specialist. "It's the main reason Michigan leads the nation in the number of woodcock banded."
Banders are busy in the Michigan woods right now and will continue through early June, by which time the bulk of the chicks have developed enough that they can fly and further banding efforts are fruitless.