The unusual world of woodcock banding in Minnesota with pointing dogs
When the north shore steelhead run is going strong, and the ramps and morels begin to show themselves after another long and snowy winter, an additional season of running pointing dogs on birds begins. Only this time I am equipped with a hand net instead of a 16-gauge, and my vest is full of tiny bands, a ruler, notebook, banding pliers, and a whole lot of optimism for finding a few recently hatched broods of the Northwoods’ goofiest game bird.
Woodcock banding is probably the closest thing to actual upland hunting you can do in the spring, and is an extremely rewarding activity for any bird lover turned dog lover or dog lover turned bird lover, depending on the category of upland bird fanatic you place yourself in. Love for the dog work and love for the bird are the greatest drivers for the few hundred permitted individuals in Minnesota and Michigan who obsessively take to the dense covers where American woodcock nest during the spring. Ticks, poison ivy, indescribable mosquito hatches, and navigating the thickest of thick covers through thorns and eye-poking branches is not for the faint of heart, but once you hold a fuzzy timberdoodle chick in your hand for the first time, it is worth every moment of the search.
Bird banding began in the late 1800s as a way of collecting data about age, sex, survival, and spatial distribution of migratory game birds. When a band is reported to the U.S. Geological Survey’s Bird Banding Laboratory in Maryland, the program is able to see where the bird was harvested or recaptured in relation to where it was originally caught. Additional data collected during banding, such as age and sex, can be used to determine differences in migration patterns and survival among cohorts as well as the current age of the bird.
The woodcock banding method used since the mid-1900s, and still today, was developed by Dr. George Andrew (Andy) Ammann Sr. of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Ammann wrote A Guide to Capturing and Banding American Woodcock Using Pointing Dogs, published by the Ruffed Grouse Society, which describes the techniques for capturing and banding woodcock. The state of Michigan’s highly successful volunteer woodcock banding program, established in the 1960s, was the model for Minnesota’s program, which began in the early 1990s. The season begins each spring once the woodcock have returned and a hen has found a male on a singing-ground and successfully incubated a clutch of up to four eggs.
The dog’s role in banding
Dogs are the most important part of the volunteer banding program. Only very rarely is a human lucky enough to spot a hen and her chicks on the ground without the help of a four-legged banding companion whose keen sense of smell is proportionally 40 times better than ours. This is real work for these dogs, and their ability to be cooperative and steady is paramount.
For a bander to become permitted, their dog must be proven steady to wing and fall. A nesting or brooding hen woodcock often performs a telltale flutter flight upon flushing, sometimes feigning an injured leg or wing. This short and low flight is meant to attract the dog away from her nest or chicks, and it is critical that the dog resists the urge to catch or injure the hen. Even one extra step by the dog in the presence of a woodcock brood could crush a chick. This is a great deal of pressure for any dog, but the bond created during this activity is something to be cherished for a lifetime. Now that the dog’s job is done, the pressure is on you to actually find the chicks, which blend seamlessly into the carpet of browns and tans on the springtime forest floor.
The woodcock banding process
By design, the chicks are very well camouflaged, have almost no scent, and will freeze in place upon being discovered. The dog is moved back, leashed to a nearby tree or lying quietly while you pick up the chicks and place them in a mesh bag where they will stay safe during the banding process. One by one, they will each get a shiny new leg band, which is big enough that their adult legs will fit comfortably once they are fully grown, but small enough not slip off their shorebird-like feet even when they’re small. Measuring the chicks’ bill length indicates their age in days. This data is recorded, and then they are quickly released together as you and the dog make a safe and quiet getaway. I like to place them back where I found them, but out of the sun and away from any obstacles. Their mama won’t be far away and will usually call them right over to her.
A woodcock hen and her chicks are constantly on the move, eating voraciously and growing fast. In two short weeks the chicks will be capable of flight. At this point the chicks, in their awkward teenager phase, will be easier to detect by predators, but will also be better able to evade them. The banding season is effectively over once chicks are flighted . . . or when banders are driven out of the woods by heat and mosquitos.
The quiet season for running your dogs afield on public lands starts prior to the nesting season in most states, but for permitted banders, this is a special opportunity to run the Northwoods searching for timber rockets in the name of conservation. The Michigan Department of National Resources holds its volunteer training workshop every other year, and Minnesota has a course annually at Pineridge Grouse Camp. Both programs put heavy emphasis on the health and well-being of the birds.
The camaraderie that occurs amongst the banding family is another reason to look forward to the spring season. Springtime “hunters” are often more than willing to share their spots with new banders, and there is a celebration every time someone from the team scores. If you and your dog find yourselves pining for more days spent in the woods searching for upland adventures in the spring of the year and want to participate in a citizen science program for a species we all treasure, the “catch and release” woodcock season may be just the thing for you.
Bailey Petersen lives in Two Harbors, Minnesota and is the assistant area wildlife manager for the Minnesota DNR for counties bordering the north shore of Lake Superior. She enjoys the Northwoods in pursuit of forest game birds, woodcock banding in the spring with her pointing dogs, and fishing with her husband.