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 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,” she said.
Sometimes called the timberdoodle, woodcocks are chunky, brownish birds with large eyes, short tails, and long beaks that they probe into the ground in search of earthworms to eat.
“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, woodcocks 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, which is 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.
“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,” she explained. “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 0.4 kilometers to listen for the birds for two minutes before proceeding to the next stop. Depending on the 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,” said Harrington. “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 will be held on Tuesday, April 3, or Friday, April 6 from 6 to 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, email Harrington at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit https://www.facebook.com/ProjectTimberdoodle.
This article first appeared on EcoRI.org on March 15, 2018.