A second woodcock hunting season in Michigan observes no opening or closing dates. No license is required, nor are there bag limits. Guns stay home, because they are unnecessary. What is needed is an exceptional pointing dog—one that hunts close, walks on eggshells and is as staunch as a Swiss palace guard.
Every April and May 80 to 100 banders and their highly trained partners take to Michigan’s brushlands, forest openings and farmland-edge coverts in search of brooding woodcock hens. Birds protecting their clutches of four unhatched eggs are left alone until the chicks appear and can be banded along with their mothers. It’s a delicate business relying on binoculars to spot the cryptically camouflaged chicks, bits of fluorescent tape dropped near the chicks to prevent their being stepped on, long-handled cloth nets to catch mother and young, and small specialty pliers to attach aluminum bands to legs.
Overseen by the DNR and approved by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (because of the woodcock’s migratory nature), Michigan is the only state with a regulated spring-banding program. Dating to 1960, the program has now seen more than 35,000 woodcock banded. The current average is about 1,000 each spring.
I have tagged along on several of these “hunts,” and one year I actually owned a setter that was vetted as “safely staunch” by a veteran bander but was preoccupied that spring and couldn’t go afield. The DNR limits volunteers, who are largely self-regulated, to not more than 100 and issues permits only to those who attend a one-day workshop and agree to be mentored as an apprentice.
This is not a competitive sport and is not for everyone. Woodcock banders are a select group of citizen-researchers who are highly trained, passionate about woodcock management and have the utmost respect for the birds’ well-being.
Only about 5 percent of the bands are ever recovered—mostly by hunters in the fall—but the data is critical for researchers eager to know more about woodcock migrations, habitat preferences, mortality rates and best management practices. Additional information is also being gathered by “sat tags” (lightweight electronic backpacks attached to captured adult birds). For example: Migratory woodcock fly an average of 870 miles, mostly north and south but also east and west. The miniature sat tags, which cost about $3,000 each, do not interfere with flying or mating activities and will send data for years or until the batteries die.
If you want to follow the movements of Eastern Flyway birds equipped with sat tags, go to woodcockmigration.org/migration.html. For more information, go to ruffedgrousesociety.org/understanding-woodcock-migration-rgs.
After more than a half-century of hunting, I have yet to recover a banded bird or—rarer still—one wearing a sat-tag backpack. But when turning any woodcock over and over to admire its beauty, I can’t help wondering where it has been or where it might have gone.