By Nick Simonson
With the North Dakota Game & Fish Department (NDG&F) wrapping up their spring crowing count surveys for pheasants, agents are able to provide some insight into conditions meeting nesting birds, and what awaits hatching chicks. While some winter mortality of pheasants and other upland birds is expected after a tough start to the winter of 2016-17, a warmer February prevented a good deal more according to RJ Gross, Upland Game Biologist for the NDG&F.
“We had a pretty tough winter, most of the state was quite snow-covered,” said Gross, “but end of January into February we had a reprieve, a lot of snow melted and a lot more [pheasants] came through than expected,” he concluded, stating that the crowing counts would provide more insight into surviving populations.
As part of the survey process, NDG&F agents and volunteers drive on one of over 100 routes in the state, and stop 10 times along the approximately 20-mile-long courses, shut off their vehicles and listen for two minutes for the sound of crowing rooster pheasants. While not every spring day is perfect for taking crowing counts, clear and calm mornings are the best as windy conditions deter pheasant activity and make hearing distant calls more difficult. Regardless of the weather, the number of calls heard by surveyors are recorded each day, compiled and then reviewed by biologists like Gross, to get an idea of how well the population survived the preceding winter. The official crowing counts are expected to released by the NDG&F in early July.
While the roosters are still crowing this time of year, hens are hard at the task of raising the next generation of pheasant, initiating their nests and laying a clutch of 10-14 eggs.
“In North Dakota our hens start nesting around the end of May or early June; our peak hatch occurs during the last two weeks in June,” said Gross, relaying that hens spend approximately 23 days on the nest incubating the eggs and historically, the peak of the hatch hasn’t varied more than five or six days since records were kept by the department.
The first two weeks after the hatch are the most critical for pheasant chicks and their recruitment into the population. Insects are a vital part of a new pheasant’s diet and provide a source of protein for their development, particularly of their feathers which provide warmth; and getting a good source of food is important as they go through the early stages of life. By two weeks, pheasant chicks are able to fly short distances.
“If it keeps up how it is in North Dakota now, it’ll be really tough [for the chicks], because it is really dry,” said Gross, “we need some rain, we need that moisture in the ground to produce the brooding habitat and those insects,” he concluded.
With recent changes in law moving up the annual North Dakota pheasant hunting opener, there is some concern that chicks might not mature in time to be fully colored, particularly for the youth pheasant opener which occurs the weekend before the general pheasant opener. But of far greater concern is the decrease in habitat through the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).
“At our peak, we had over 3 million acres of CRP, and the last time I checked we were right around that 1 million acres,” Gross stated, “last year we didn’t lose too many [acres], but I know in 2018 a lot of them are coming out, so the 2018 Farm Bill will be really important as it goes for habitat and grasslands,” he concluded.
A number of habitat initiatives are available to landowners through the NDG&F PLOTS program for a variety of land types including grasslands, wetlands, treeclaims and other habitat for upland birds and other wildlife. Landowners are encouraged to contact the NDG&F Department to find a program that works for them and their habitat efforts such as the new Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) and State Acres For wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) which utilize federal funding to secure more acres for habitat, hunting and for the protection of declining, threatened and endangered species in the state. For more information, visit gf.nd.gov/wildlife/swap.