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Woodcock Banding Dogs

This “catch-and-release” style of bird hunting is only for pointing dogs who demonstrate absolute control and cooperation.

Woodcock Banding Dogs

Approved woodcock banding dogs exhibit extreme steadiness and restraint against distraction.  (Bailey Petersen photo)

The American woodcock is one of the uplander’s most beloved game birds. But the woodcock hunting season is brief—a six-week season allotted to chase and admire the humble Prince of Timber. While some hunters pass on a flushing woodcock and say, “They taste like mud, my dog won’t even pick them up,” many of us take delight in the dog work and adding a few doodles to the game bag. Gently cradling an intricately designed woodcock in the hand, we wish we could somehow practice a catch-and-release form of hunting them.

While many hunters in the Midwest and Northeast train their dogs on spring woodcock in the “second season,” a few bona fide woodcock aficionados indeed have a catch-and-release woodcock hunting season, and volunteer with their bird dogs as woodcock banders each spring. In years past, several of these programs were run by wildlife agencies in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, but nowadays, woodcock banding and other research efforts rely on passionate volunteers and their well-trained pointing dogs.

A Timeless and Tested Tradition

Bailey Petersen—coincidently a wildlife and habitat specialist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources—has been a dedicated woodcock bander for several years. After receiving her wildlife degree, she became involved in a University-led woodcock research project and fell in love with the bird. She soon acquired Mogul—a Small Munsterlander—and set her sights on becoming a woodcock bander. While she would later become more involved in bird hunting, her initial objective was to train Mogul to be a woodcock banding dog.

As woodcock are a migratory game bird and managed under federal law, a banding permit is issued to an individual in each participating state, and all volunteer handler-banders work under the banding coordinator. In Minnesota, the canine approval process is implemented through a training, testing, and mentorship program, hosted by Pine Ridge Grouse Camp of Remer, Minnesota. Volunteers attend an initial workshop and begin testing their dog against a standard. Dogs are expected to exhibit extreme steadiness, control, and cooperation to pass. A series of pigeons on strings are presented and the dogs are expected to remain staunchly on point and steady to wing and fall while the pigeon walks around and attempts to fly, simulating a short-flushing hen woodcock.

A small munsterlander pointing a woodcock
Woodcock banding dogs are expected to hold point and remain steady until being released. (Bailey Petersen photo)

If dog and handler pass these initial tests, they are moved into apprentice status, where they can hit the woods under their mentor’s supervision for at least the first season. The apprentice works through a handbook of field tests, including the dog’s ability to point woodcock, stop to flush, and remain steady under limited voice command before being released. After a point is established, the dog is picked up and moved away or tied to a tree while the new bander and mentor work through handling chicks. In the following spring, the new bander and their dog will be examined again before given approval to venture out on their own. However, the monitoring doesn’t end once all the boxes are checked. Volunteers continue to check in on each other, attend the annual workshop, and participate in additional refresher weekends to maintain the high-level performance of their dogs.

“We really value the bird and the process,” said Petersen. “We’ve tried to present all of the scenarios we’ve seen into these evaluations. It’s not uncommon for an apprenticeship to last two seasons between the delicate bird handling and dog work. We want to make sure we follow strict standards and we have to set them high—it is 100 percent about the birds and their welfare.”

Woodcock Banding Process

Banders take to the woods in search of woodcock chicks to outfit, beginning about 30 days after the first males were observed in the singing grounds. Woodcock are swift to take advantage of the short spring season, with hens laying eggs just days after breeding, and fast-track through a rapid 21-day incubation. The objective for banders is to locate fresh broods, usually four chicks per clutch and ideally between 1 to 14 days old, before they leave the nest site for good.

Dog and owner trapse through the cover until a dog locks into point. The handler carefully surveys the area and is likely to encounter a few different scenarios. An incubating hen may remain still, flush lightly, or perform a broken-wing act. A hen may be found with wings outstretched hiding her newly hatched brood, or the young’uns may be found dispersed around the nesting site. All circumstances require a dog to remain poised and non-reactive. Disciplined dogs are needed as to not step on chicks or chase and catch a close-flushing hen. Only once chicks are spotted in the right scenario will the bander carefully move in to perform their duty, return the banded chicks to mom, and then retreat to the next point.

New for New England

Over in Rhode Island, pointing dogs have only recently begun assisting biological researchers. Colby Slezak, a PhD student from the University of Rhode Island, is in his second spring season working with volunteer handlers and their bird dogs to locate woodcock. In one study funded by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, the research team is GPS-mapping pointed nests and outfitting hens and chicks with GPS transmitters. The goal of this study is to learn more about the post-hatch dispersal and how-when-where-why resident hens and broods utilize different habitats throughout the year. This information is used to inform public and private forest owners on how to better protect and manage key upland habitat.

Slezak is also involved in the Eastern Woodcock Migration Research Cooperative, where he relies on volunteers and bird dogs in the fall months to outfit female woodcock with GPS units to track their overwintering grounds. He monitors tracked females returning to New England and works with collaborators to locate these birds who are suspected to be nesting, based on GPS data. Ground-truthing these speculations leads to an advanced understanding of how GPS data can identify nesting hens remotely.

Academic researchers conducting a study on woodcock
Academic researchers in Rhode Island utilize pointing dogs to locate woodcock in several ongoing ecological and habitat studies. (Photo courtesy of Colby Slezak)

“This is the first time in this part of the country pointing dogs have been used in this way, as well as the first time research is being done on female woodcock,” said Slezak. “Females are very cryptic, hard to find, and they don’t display or move around like males. Until now, we’ve never really known where they were nesting or how many were nesting here in Rhode Island. We would never be able to find them and their nests without the dogs.”

Unsung Upland 

Think your dog has what it takes to become an approved woodcock banding dog? Take an honest assessment of your dog’s ability to exhibit extreme steadiness, restraint, and discipline on wild birds. Woodcock nests and chick survivability are already subject to the perils of habitat loss, predation, and weather. Banding coordinators, researchers, and cooperators all demand the highest of standards for every dog accepted into the bird banding brigade.

Newly hatched woodcock chicks
Extreme care and caution are taken by all when working with woodcock chicks. (Photo courtesy of Colby Slezak)

The important scientific data collected from these efforts allows wildlife managers to better understand woodcock ecology, set hunting season dates and bag limits, and conserve critical woodcock habitat. Most banding volunteers are hunters, but several are not. Many of them purely enjoy training their bird dog to the highest level, and a few are simply committed conservationists, but they all share a common affection and admiration of the American woodcock—the unsung icon of the uplands.

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