RI Volunteers Needed for “Funny-Looking Bird” Study

By Todd McLeish for ecoRI News

One of the region’s most unusual birds is the subject of a research project by University of Rhode Island doctoral student Erin Harrington, and she’s seeking at least 80 volunteers to become citizen scientists to contribute to her work. All it takes is a commitment of 38 minutes at dusk on four dates between April 20 and May 10, plus attendance at a two-hour training session.

American woodcock by Tim Flanigan

American woodcock use their long bills to probe in the ground for earthworms, a favorite food./T. Flanigan

The subject of Harrington’s study is the American woodcock, which she calls “a funny-looking bird with short, stubby legs and a variety of silly nicknames [and] that makes arguably the silliest sounding mating call known to mankind.”

She’s not kidding.

“They’re an ideal bird for citizen scientists to work with because they’re unique and goofy looking, but their goofiness is endearing in a way that makes them distinctive and easy to identify,” Harrington said.

Sometimes called timberdoodles, woodcock are chunky, brownish birds with large eyes, short tails, and long beaks that they probe into the ground which searching for earthworms to eat. They are found throughout the eastern United States, but their populations have been declining throughout their range. Little is known about their habits and habitat preferences in Rhode Island.

“We want to figure out where woodcocks are showing up in Rhode Island and where they aren’t,” Harrington said. “Where they’re showing up and where they aren’t are equally important, because that tells us a little about what kind of habitat they prefer. And in areas where they are showing up, we’re also interested in how many are there. Areas of high numbers likely indicate a preferred habitat area.”

According to Harrington, woodcock are considered an umbrella species for forest management. They require young forest habitat to thrive. If forestry officials manage habitat for woodcock, then many other species with similar habitat needs, including the rare New England cottontail, will also benefit.

Participants in the research project will listen for the mating call of the male woodcock, which Harrington described as a nasal peent. It’s very distinctive. They also perform what she calls a sky dance, an elaborate aerial display that includes a twittering sound made by their wing feathers. However, they only perform these rituals for a short period at dusk. They also like to dance on the ground.

New England cottontail USFWS

When forests are managed to favor woodcock, then other species that use the same habitats, such as rare New England cottontails, also benefit./USFWS

“The males start peenting on the ground, move around in a circle and peent in different directions, then fly up into the air and essentially dance in the air before flying back down to the same spot they came from,” Harrington said. “Hopefully, their sky dance will be appealing enough in some way for a female to think, ‘Yes, that bird is worth mating with.’”

Using a protocol developed by woodcock researchers elsewhere, participating volunteers will drive a designated route, stopping every quarter-mile to listen for the birds for 2 minutes before proceeding to the next stop. Depending on weather conditions, volunteers must start the route exactly 15 or 20 minutes after sunset and be finished within 38 minutes, before it gets too dark and the birds stop displaying.

“After we have a few years of data, we hope to have better information about where they are, where they aren’t, and where they are in high numbers, and apply that information to forest management,” Harrington said. “Data from this study will be combined with data from other studies that tracked woodcock movement patterns and measured habitat characteristics so we can predict where the birds should turn up.”

No experience or knowledge is necessary to participate in the project as a citizen scientist.

“You don’t have to know anything at all about woodcocks,” she said. “We’re interested in people who feel comfortable driving at night, think the birds are cool, and are excited about participating in the project. That’s all.”

Training sessions are scheduled for Tuesday, April 3, and Friday, April 6, from 6-8 p.m. in Weaver Auditorium in the Coastal Institute building on the URI Kingston campus. For more information about the project or to register as a volunteer, send an e-mail to Harrington at e_harrington@my.uri.edu or visit Project Timberdoodle.

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Rhode Island resident and author Todd McLeish runs a wildlife blog.