Sponsored By
An organization or individual has paid for the creation of this work but did not approve or review it.



Inside the Outdoors: Minnesota’s unique upland migrant will be arriving soon

Inside the Outdoors with Mike Rahn

Photo illustration / Shutterstock.com

Most of the upland game birds that are hunted in Minnesota are year-round residents. This is true of the ruffed grouse, the ring-necked pheasant, wild turkeys, sharptail grouse and—restricted by limited harvest permits—the pinnated grouse or greater prairie chicken. Their habitats differ markedly, from deciduous woodlands, to mixed-crop agricultural lands, to prairie, to brushy grassland. But none of these birds leaves us in the fall to spend the winter elsewhere.

The exception to this upland game bird residency rule is the American woodcock, a quail-sized migrant that departed at freeze-up last fall, and can be expected to arrive back in Minnesota soon, returning from the South as winter loses its grip on the Minnesota landscape.

The woodcock is primarily a creature of aspen, birch and alder woodlands. An important common denominator, however, is the nearness of these woodlands to moisture, whether it be an adjacent marsh or swampland, a shallow pond or lake or a meandering stream or brook. This proximity to surface water generally means that the soil underlying these woodlands will be moist, except perhaps during times of seasonal drought.

This is important, because the woodcock’s primary food source—60 percent or more—is earthworms, and moist soil means earthworms will be near the surface and available, whether the diner is a robin or a woodcock. Woodcock are true gastronomic specialists, and have a simple digestive system that is well suited to processing these soft, wriggly creatures, which are 80-85% water.

Beyond their overwhelming preference for earthworms, woodcock are also known to eat ants, caterpillars, centipedes, spiders, crickets and larvae of several insect species. This is especially true when, for one reason or another, earthworms are in short supply or unavailable.


Foods that woodcock are not well suited to processing are hard items, like the buds and catkins of trees and shrubs, seeds and nuts and the like. They do not have a gizzard designed to grind such foods to extract their nutrition. Though woodcock may at times be seen on forest trails or even roadsides, they are not there to gather sand or grit for the digestion of such foods, as grouse and wild turkeys will regularly do.

Woodcock come from a very different branch of the evolutionary tree than grouse, pheasants or wild turkeys. Deep in their ancestry are members of the shorebird clan, which includes the snipe, sandpipers and plovers. Those birds are typically encountered while they are flighting or feeding on tidal flats and beaches, or along the margins of lakes, ponds or river flood plains. To one degree or another, many shorebirds have bills that are disproportionately long, well-suited to probing soft sand and soil for insects, worms, mollusks and crustaceans.

Though the woodcock’s evolutionary path has taken it from shorelines and watery environments to living in woodlands, it has—not by coincidence—retained the long bill shared with so many of its distant shorebird relatives. Instead of probing beaches and flats for clams or oysters, the woodcock uses its long bill—which varies from two and one-half to two and three-quarters of an inch long—to deeply probe most soil for earthworms. The tip of its bill is actually hinged, facilitating the grabbing of earthworm prey.

Compared to pheasants, wild turkeys or ruffed grouse, comparatively few upland game bird hunters intentionally or actively pursue woodcock. Their habitat preferences to some extent overlap those of Minnesota’s ruffed grouse, and many are harvested by hunters primarily seeking grouse, as opposed to those who identify as woodcock hunters. Small in size and weight compared to grouse or pheasants, they are nevertheless considered a prize and a delicacy by a devoted group who hold them in high esteem. Some of these hunters become bird banders, and—with the aid of their pointing dogs—seek the woodcock in spring for the purpose of banding hens and their chicks for scientific inquiry.

An american woodcock taking refuge on a small patch of snow-free forest floor at the beginning of spring.
Photo illustration / Shutterstock.com

Spring of 2023 could be a later year for the return of woodcock from the Gulf Coast and southern Atlantic states, where many winter. But woodcock are a species inclined to “push the envelope,” to arrive as early as possible to take advantage of small habitat niches, places where spring-like conditions are present even while the broader landscape nearby is still wintry and inhospitable.

Places, perhaps, where springs and seeps emerge from the earth, where slightly warmer subsurface moisture has thawed the soil. Or south-facing slopes, where the most direct sunlight has melted the snow cover, and warmed and thawed the earth. It’s common for a venturesome woodcock to find such almost invisible places, there to stake out a territory in anticipation of the breeding season to come.

While much of the northland still has a deep layer of snow remaining, it is also true that this snow cover has in many places prevented frost from penetrating deep into the subsoil. This being the case, the disappearance of snow cover as we return to temperature regimes consistently in the 40’s will present a landscape welcoming to returning woodcock. As our year-round resident game birds engage in their mating rituals and begin nesting, woodcock will begin their seasonal residency. They will conduct their own unique and fascinating rituals, find mates, select nest sites and begin raising the next generation of these truly unique upland game birds.


Mike Rahn - Inside the Outdoors.jpg
Mike Rahn, columnist

Opinion by Mike Rahn
What To Read Next
Get Local