Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

May 24, 2024

This article focuses on an American Woodcock migratory ecology study in the eastern United States. “Notes from the Field” are contributed articles that highlight current banding projects and the continued importance of bird banding 100+ years after the establishment of the Bird Banding Lab. 

“Notes From the Field” news articles highlight the continued importance of bird banding. This article was contributed by Amber Roth and Erik Blomberg who initiated the Eastern Woodcock Migration Research Cooperative in 2017. 

Today, banding allows scientists to investigate bird behavior, migration, lifespans, populations, diseases and levels of environmental contaminants. Information gathered through the North American Bird Banding Program helps inform management and conservation decisions for game and non-game species, such as protecting or restoring habitat, setting hunting regulations and determining plans for human-led development.  The North American Bird Banding Program depends on a network of over 10,000 permitted bird banders from the United States and Canada working throughout the western hemisphere. Each year these banders help us add up to 1.2 million new banding records to our century-long dataset.


A brown and black bird with a long bill, in the hands of a bander
An American Woodcock GPS-satellite tagged as part of the Eastern Woodcock Migration Research Cooperative's ongoing studies which focus on learning more about woodcock migration ecology.

How do you use bird banding in your research?

The Eastern Woodcock Migration Research Cooperative was formed in 2017 to study the migration ecology of the American Woodcock (Scolopax minor). Collaborators in 15 US states and 3 Canadian provinces have deployed over 600 GPS satellite transmitters. Most woodcock in the study were captured in the fall (on the breeding grounds) or late winter (on the wintering grounds) using mist nets and spotlighting birds in roosting fields. Much of the capture, banding, and tagging effort is conducted by state and provincial wildlife biologists and graduate students trained to use a standardized protocol and methods. Seven graduate students at the University of Maine (3 PhD, 1 MS), University of Rhode Island (1 PhD, 1 MS), and State University of New York-Brockport (1 MS) and one post-doctoral associate at the University of Maine have led research projects using the cooperative dataset.


Why is your study species so interesting?

The American Woodcock must be one of the quirkiest birds in North America! It has an upside-down brain, long prehensile bill, distinctive spring courtship display, and it’s a shorebird that thinks it is a forest bird. The chicks are precocial and are tough to top on the cuteness scale. The woodcock is a migratory gamebird that breeds throughout much of its range in eastern North America that extends from the Gulf of Mexico’s northern coast to southeastern Canada. Sadly, this species has been on a slow, long-term decline (1.1% per year). Factors driving the decline are not clear but loss of habitat throughout their full annual cycle, contaminants such as lead, collisions with buildings, and poor recruitment of young birds into the breeding adult population are possible contributors. Our project was formed to work towards a better understanding of how periods of migration, and the threats woodcock experience during them, might factor into these long-term declines.


a map of the eastern united states with a 6 differently colored lines going north to south/south to north
This map represents the data provided by GPS-satellites placed on six different individual American Woodcock showing both their fall and spring migrations routes. 

What have you found so far?

We collected data for 517 woodcock migration attempts and 405 full migratory paths during 2017-2023.  From this dataset, we learned that woodcock have individualistic migration strategies rather than groups with distinctly different strategies. The initiation of both fall and spring migrations varies geographically and differs by age and sex. Adult birds initiate fall migration on average 4 days earlier than young birds*. Males initiate spring migration 6 days earlier than females, and females in above average body condition migrated later*. During spring migration, the timing of male migratory movements aligns well with the methods used by the US Fish and Wildlife Service to monitor woodcock populations and document declines. We’ve also discovered that itinerant breeding during spring migration is more common than previously known, with females nesting up to 6 times with the first nest attempt often being south of the known breeding range. Movements averaged 800 km between the first two nest attempts (around 200+ km for subsequent nest attempts) and post-nesting attempts were generally northward. Finally, we’ve created an online decision support tool for the Pennsylvania Game Commission that depicts multi-season habitat use by woodcock. Woodcock use different habitat on migration than for breeding which creates an opportunity to improve habitat management from a full annual cycle perspective. 

*Bander note: These results emphasize the importance of reporting age, sex, and body condition with your band records. 


Why do you think projects like yours are so important?

a transmitter is applied to the back of a brown bird
An American Woodcock is fitted with a GPS-satellite transmitter which will provide information about this individual's movements. Data collected from this transmitter will inform scientists about bird migration movements, survival, phenology, habitat selection, and strategies. 

Given that the American Woodcock has a larger body size than many declining forest songbirds (and thus can carry a GPS-satellite transmitter) but uses the same habitat, it can be a surrogate to improve our understanding of migration ecology for a large suite of declining species. The ability to collect GPS-accurate data and transmit it via satellite without recapturing the birds allows us to better understand bird migration movements, survival, phenology, habitat selection, and strategies at a range wide scale that would be difficult to study using historical telemetry approaches. We can also gain insights into major conservation issues affecting migratory birds. Unfortunately, woodcock is one of the most common species to fall victim to window collisions in large metropolitan areas across the East. Because our research shows that spring migration begins in February and fall migration ends in December, lights-out programs in cities are not likely in effect when many woodcock are migrating through them. We’ve demonstrated that fall hunting seasons generally align well with influxes of migrating woodcock which aids state and federal wildlife agencies in fine tuning their hunting season framework. A better understanding of woodcock migration ecology can help us improve management, reduce the risk of migration, and develop more effective conservation strategies for this species and other migratory birds.


What are the next steps for your project?

As with all good research projects, by answering one question, new questions emerge. Several graduate students continue to collect and analyze data as they pursue their own research questions. We anticipate new results over the next two years related to woodcock survival across migratory stages, flight altitudes during migration, response to artificial night light during migration, population structure and connectivity, full annual cycle habitat selection at the rangewide scale, and assessments of breeding habitat in New York and West Virginia. See our website for current maps of woodcock locations and annual reports. 


The “Notes From the Field” series highlights current banding projects and the continued importance of bird banding and the Bird Banding Lab. Want to see your project featured in a future “Notes From the Field” article? Email Kyra Harvey for submission details.

Get Our News

These items are in the RSS feed format (Really Simple Syndication) based on categories such as topics, locations, and more. You can install and RSS reader browser extension, software, or use a third-party service to receive immediate news updates depending on the feed that you have added. If you click the feed links below, they may look strange because they are simply XML code. An RSS reader can easily read this code and push out a notification to you when something new is posted to our site.