Since the 1960s, when wildlife biologists first began keeping tabs on the woodcock population, the birds' numbers have fallen alarmingly.
For the last three decades, the woodcock population has declined by about 1 percent each year. The latest Woodcock Status Report (pdf) published by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provides details.
The American woodcock is now listed as a Species of High Concern by the U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plan, a Game Bird Below Desired Condition by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a "yellow list" species in slow decline and of national conservation concern by the National Audubon Society, and a species of greatest conservation need by many states throughout the woodcock's range.
Wildlife biologists believe that hunting is not what's causing woodcock numbers to fall. Rather, the problem is an ongoing loss of habitat -- the places that woodcock need to feed, rest during their migrations, mate, and raise young.
Two main causes are driving this dwindling of habitat.
First, much of the land where woodcock once lived has been taken over by houses, roads, shopping malls, and other urban and suburban development. The second factor is a natural one: As brushy areas mature to become forest, they cease being useful to woodcock.
To boost woodcock numbers, we need to improve and create the young forest that these birds need for feeding, nesting, and rearing young. Creating openings in dense forest and allowing the openings to grow back naturally yields important living zones for woodcock -- and also for a great many other wild species that need this sort of habitat, from chestnut-sided warblers to ruffed grouse, from cottontail rabbits to bobcats, and including such reptiles as bog and wood turtles.
In 2001 the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies formed a Woodcock Task Force to determine the extent of woodcock habitat loss during the past 30 years and to make recommendations to halt and reverse that trend.
In 2007 the Task Force published the American Woodcock Conservation Plan (pdf). The Plan documents a decrease of more than 839,000 singing male woodcock across the species' range since the early 1970s. And it advances and explains the goal of halting the population's decline by 2012 and achieving population growth by 2022.
To return woodcock numbers to those of the early 1970s, approximately 21.3 million acres (8.6 million hectares) of early successional habitat (young forest and shrublands) need to be created. Not only do woodcock benefit from more young forest, but so do more than 50 other wild species.
Helping Wildlife Region by Region
The Wildlife Management Institute coordinates efforts to achieve conservation goals through a network of regional young-forest habitat initiatives.
Regional Initiatives are linked to Bird Conservation Regions, or BCRs, fundamental biological units recognized by the U.S. North American Bird Conservation Initiative.
Regional initiatives are planned for all parts of North America where woodcock breed, through which they migrate, and where they spend the winter. These efforts are advanced by partners: agencies, organizations, businesses, and individuals committed to restoring woodcock populations by meeting the goals set forth in the Woodcock Conservation Plan.
How It Works
All regional initiatives rely on the same basic approach:
Managers and biologists develop Best Management Practices (BMPs) specific to each region for improving and creating young-forest habitat.
Land managers apply the Best Management Practices on Demonstration Areas. These areas may be on state and federal wildlife areas, National Wildlife Refuges, and state and national forests, and on land owned by corporations, land trusts, and private individuals.
Biologists count woodcock and monitor population response to habitat improvement. Radio-telemetry-based research lets biologists track which habitats woodcock use and when they use them.
Partners in each initiative work to get the word out to other public and private landowners, so that they can go see woodcock habitat on recognized demonstration areas and can then undertake habitat management to help woodcock on their own properties. This outreach effort helps inform and educate the public about areas and environments where more young forest is needed, as well as areas and environments where it is not necessary or where it would be unwise to create young forest.
To enjoy a diversity of wildlife, we need a diversity of habitats.