Blue Ridge Naturalist: Wildlife Dependent upon People

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© Marlene A. Condon

Woodcock
Woodcock

Last month, on a day that was —according to the calendar—about two weeks before the beginning of spring, I listened to the sounds of its impending arrival. Wood Frogs had been calling vociferously all day from my artificial ponds and a lone Spring Peeper had occasionally joined in.

But what really made an impression on me was the number of woodcocks I had heard calling in the morning darkness before the Sun rose. I was taking my usual walk along a nearby road and was thrilled to hear at least seven of these birds in my area.

A woodcock is a rather strange-looking bird with a long beak and plump body. It nests from Virginia northwards, but then needs to move southwards with the seasons—generally speaking. One relatively snowless winter, I did hear a woodcock calling every month from November to May in a nearby field, but that is unusual.

Birders visit fields to listen for returning woodcocks at this time of the year, particularly fields that contain damp soil conditions that allow the birds to feed. A woodcock’s long beak is used to probe the soil for earthworms and other invertebrates.

The population of woodcocks has been in decline since the 1960s. Their diminishing numbers are said to be due to loss of habitat because of development and also forest maturation. The reason we now have more forests composed of older trees is because we are still suffering the fallout from years ago when the huge outcry against clear-cutting left people thinking that cutting forests is a bad thing to do.

The result has been a loss of habitat for the many kinds of wildlife that absolutely depend upon the shrubby and wild grass-and-flower-filled landscape that comprises a regenerating forest landscape. The American Woodcock and other birds, such as the Ruffed Grouse, simply cannot reproduce without the appropriate habitat provided by a young forest.

But when people view the world with a very narrow perspective, and they insist that their perspective guide the management of most public (and often private) land, the end result is typically disastrous for the environment as a whole.

Additionally, based upon my own local observations, another very serious problem for the woodcock and other birds of field and edge habitat is the default modification of the landscape that occurs in conjunction with people building houses in fields.

Instead of maintaining mostly field habitat around their new home, the owners more commonly turn the acreage into lawn, which very few species of wildlife can utilize. Or, if they keep it looking like a field, it is cut far too often to be of much use to wildlife.

As evidenced by my pre-dawn walk that early-March day, fields are vital to our American Woodcock. Although most of the woodcocks I heard that morning were performing their aerial mating display to impress females in farm fields, one woodcock was making use of a wonderfully overgrown “yard.” And since I’ve also heard a woodcock here in previous years, the acreage is obviously being managed well for this type of bird.

The yard consists of about five acres (I would guess), which has neither been turned into a lawn nor kept cut throughout the growing, and mating, season. The folks who moved into the house on that property several years ago made the decision to manage the land in a nature-friendly manner and have done so continuously.

The woodcock singing from, and displaying above, their field is testament to their management-style success. In my opinion, these folks are so admirable that they deserve an award. Instead, Albemarle County and Commonwealth of Virginia officials bestow upon them the very highest land valuation (and tax bill) possible for private property—residential—for helping wildlife and the environment as a whole.

As often as local politicians purport to be conservation-minded, it’s difficult to understand why they don’t push for Richmond legislators to change tax laws so people who are truly conservation-minded aren’t penalized for doing what, in actuality, everyone should be doing with their properties.

No one requires a huge lawn. This aesthetic concept should be considered archaic and a relic of a time when mankind wasn’t taking up every bit of available space on the planet. It may have been acceptable years ago to waste land, but it shouldn’t be tolerated nowadays.

Any lawn that is larger than what will be utilized for everyday entertaining represents a wasted resource. Land is supposed to be productive. It should be growing food (whether for people or other organisms) or providing shelter and nesting sites for animals.

This is the reason that every bit of usable land sprouts seedlings that people call “weeds.” Mother Nature is trying to provide for her critters.

Anyone who gardens and anyone who owns land should think about their actions upon the environment as a whole. And if you are fortunate enough to own a fair bit of land, you should consider emulating my neighbors who’ve managed to attract a woodcock to their property for a few years now.

Make no mistake about it: The future of our wildlife is going to be determined by how people choose to manage their yards.

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