ONAMIA, Minn. (AP) -- Along with rail, snipe and Hungarian partridge, woodcock have few dedicated hunters in Minnesota. Yet the flush of the woodcock, whose quirky flight is unlike that of any other game bird, presents wing-shooters with a challenge on par with ruffed grouse.
The woods would lose a colorful and exciting bird if the woodcock disappeared. The alarm hasn't been sounded yet, but wildlife biologists have noted that woodcock numbers have dropped an average of 1.6 percent annually since 1968, the first year the population was counted.
Habitat loss and change are the suspected culprits. As more people build homes in the woods, large tracts of land are divided into smaller parcels and are no longer logged by landowners who prefer mature trees. Woodcock, like grouse, thrive in the new growth springing from clearcuts.
This past summer a three-year study on the decline of woodcock in the Upper Midwest began at the Mille Lacs Wildlife Management Area. It follows a similar study in Maine and will be expanded to Wisconsin and Michigan within two years. The goal of the study is to determine the effect hunting has on the woodcock population.
Hunting isn't thought to be a major influence because relatively few woodcock are shot each year. Yet Minnesota's daily bag limit was lowered in 1997 from five to three birds and the season shortened from 60 to 45 days. On the East Coast, bag limits and seasons were reduced in 1985.
''It was hard to justify shooting them at the same level even though hunting isn't known to have an effect,'' said Dan McAuley, a U.S. Geologic Survey wildlife biologist who headed the Maine study. ''Harvest is one of the few things we can control.''
In Minnesota, 120 woodcock will be captured and radio-collared from early September to Sept. 22, the hunting season opener. Sixty will be collared on Mille Lacs Wildlife Management Area and 60 others on nearby Four Brooks Wildlife Management Area, where hunting woodcock is prohibited for the duration of the study.
The birds are captured using ''mist'' nets mounted on 10-foot poles and placed in forest openings where woodcock roost. When the birds fly from daytime cover to roost they become entangled in the nets. After dark, the study team removes the birds and takes down the nets to avoid capturing bats, owls and other winged creatures of the night.
Kevin Doherty, a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, will compare the ''period survival rates'' between the Mille Lacs and Four Brooks birds and determine the role hunting plays in woodcock mortality.
''We encourage any hunter who shoots a banded bird to let us know,'' said Doherty, who will write his master's thesis on the study. ''Hunter-caused mortality is an expected part of the study. We don't want to put a bounty on woodcock but we also don't want to discourage hunters from shooting them. A lot of people think they've done something wrong when they shoot a banded bird, but that's not the case here.
''We're assuming the birds in Four Brooks won't go into Mille Lacs, but we track them everyday so we'll know if they do. Birds that stray over will be eliminated from the study. Crippled birds will be found and counted toward hunter mortality.''
Though the timing of the woodcock migration isn't a mystery -- most leave Minnesota between mid-October and early November -- not much is known about what happens to the birds as they move down the flyway. As the banded birds from Minnesota head south the frequencies of their radio transmitters will be given to a biologist at the University of Arkansas, who hopes to track the timing and speed of the migration and perhaps find the birds on their wintering grounds.
The woodcock study will cost $670,000 and is being funded by the U.S. Geologic Survey, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Wildlife Management Institute, Ruffed Grouse Society and the natural resources departments in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.
(Distributed by The Associated Press)
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