Dakota Uplander: High Hopes for ND Pheasant Hatch

By Nick Simonson

With spring crowing counts complete and numbers soon to be released by the North Dakota Game & Fish Department (NDG&F), optimism is growing for a successful pheasant hatch and brood-rearing season in the coming weeks and months throughout the state.  According to NDG&F Upland Game Biologist RJ Gross, this optimism is rooted in a milder winter and a Goldilocks sort of spring that has not been too dry, too wet, too hot or too cold.

Good Winter, Near-Perfect Spring

“It’s way better than last year, [pheasants] should have come through in good condition,” Gross explained regarding the relatively mild winter with limited snow cover, “we had a lot of open places and they could still find food, they had a lot better body composition than last year,” he continued.

While he anticipated preliminarily that crowing counts will be down about 30 percent statewide when the numbers are released next week, Gross stated that a stronger hen-to-rooster ratio this winter and spring will help drive brood counts up from last year, depending on the weather.  The statewide average of 100 hens to 58 roosters means hens had less competition for food and habitat during the mild winter and came through stronger than the previous year. Additionally, Gross relays reports coming in of hens appearing to be absent on the landscape in the first part of June, a positive indicator that they have been nesting, adding that cover is lush and green with growth fueled by ample rain.  The previous spring, many hens were anecdotally reported to have foregone nesting due to the stress of the previous winter.  Typically, June 15 is the annual peak of the hatch in North Dakota, and people should start seeing pheasant chicks shortly, but just how many remains to be seen.  Roadside brood surveys conducted by NDG&F agents and volunteers will begin on July 20, with results to follow in early September.

“I would be happy with a 20 percent increase [in brood survey numbers], it’s tough to say, just because the habitat is still going away, and with the idea of carrying capacity, we probably can’t handle the birds we had in, say 2007, when we shot almost a million roosters, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we had a 25 percent jump in brood numbers this year over last year,” Gross estimated with a bit of cautious optimism, taking in the near-perfect weather experienced by most of the state in recent weeks including the nesting season.

Something to Chew On

With drought conditions lessened this spring, Gross is also optimistic about the abundance of insects pheasant chicks require in the early days of life.  While his reports of insects are limited to what he sees on spring survey routes, he describes one surefire way of telling if things are setting up well for this food source.

“I use my windshield,” Gross said with a laugh, “that’s about the best test you can get,” he continued, noting a greater abundance of flying insects usually correlates with populations of ground insects that pheasant chicks eat in order to get the protein and nutrients for development and survival.

Gross is most optimistic about quick rebounds in the southwestern portion of the state, due to higher numbers of pheasants still in place in the region, but also looks to the southeastern counties, such as Stutsman, where good habitat is still in place and some crowing count routes showed an increase this year over last, and he relates that the area is having good spring weather, grass is coming up and there’s bugs.

Bonus Birds

The late spring did not have much of an effect on sharptailed grouse according to Gross, as the male birds stuck to their seasonal dancing rituals on leks around North Dakota.
“They don’t care, they were out there in five or six inches of snow, they’re set in their ways,” Gross reported, adding that the only thing the late snows may have affected was hens attending the mating displays.

Regarding Hungarian partridge, Gross reported seeing a couple during his crowing count routes, and the loss of expansive areas of CRP probably doesn’t hurt them as much as sharptailed grouse as partridge thrive on edge habitat.  The recent trend of farming operations in western North Dakota switching from as wheat to row crops like corn and soybeans, however, will have an impact on partridge, as they are dependent on small grain seeds for survival.  Tentatively, the North Dakota pheasant season opens on Sat., Oct. 6, with grouse and partridge seasons starting on Sat., Sept. 8.

(Featured Photo: A hen pheasant leads her brood of 11 chicks into cover on June 20 just north of Bismarck, N.D. Near-ideal conditions have built the hopes of biologists and hunters alike for a good hatch. Simonson Photo.)

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