By Nick Simonson
While it has been cold and damp across much of North Dakota since the end of an extended chilly winter, there is more optimism at the start of the pheasant nesting season than in the past two years and hopes for a good crop of new birds for this fall’s hunting season springs eternal. With ample moisture and significantly more cover available to the region’s premier upland bird, agents of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department (NDG&F) and hunters are keeping their eyes out for a warmup to bolster the hatch and sustain birds that carried over from last year.
“2017 was the drought and 2018 we actually got earlier moisture and better moisture than 2017, but there was no residual grass from 2017, so the good news this year was that there was residual grass which is what those hens use for nesting cover,” said Jesse Kolar, NDG&F Upland Game Management Supervisor, “early on that green grass isn’t tall enough to provide any cover and any nest initiated before the middle of June, they rely on the cover of that dry, residual grass from last year,” he explained.
After weathering significant snowfall in early 2019, North Dakota’s pheasants came out of winter well. As the worst of winter settled in from mid-January until the end of March, pheasants faced about 10 weeks of trying times. In every region but the southeast, pheasants have been able to handle the cooler, rainy conditions this spring has brought, though if the trend continues, it may have detrimental impacts on the hatch and recruitment of new birds.
“Body condition through late winter was good, which might have helped them survive that brutal cold,” however in the southeast they got an additional late blizzard, which anecdotally people have reported a lot of dead pheasants,” said Kolar, “with these cool temperatures early, I’m not too worried, I think pheasants can tolerate the weather up until hens start incubating and then it needs to warm for chick survival when they hatch; I’m concerned it might lead to a cool early summer, and that’s exactly what we don’t want for reproduction,” he concluded.
Crowing Counts Underway
NDG&F employees and volunteers are currently conducting crowing counts to determine the carry-over of roosters from the previous year. These roadside surveys determine an index of the pheasant population by tallying the number of male birds heard crowing on ten stops over a 20-mile route, run on optimal days with calm conditions when the two-note calls can be easily distinguished. The survey will conclude in the middle of June, and the agency will release the results to the public shortly thereafter. Three weeks into the process, NDG&F Upland Biologist RJ Gross is optimistic based on the survey reports he has reviewed and from calls he has received from the general public.
“Looking at people’s routes that are coming in, if I was a betting man, I’d say we’re going to be up [in crowing counts] a little bit overall compared to last year, which is pretty good, considering we had a long, cold winter,” Gross relayed, adding that, some nesting is underway; “my phone’s been ringing today with people reporting coming across nests with 12 to 13 eggs, and that means that hen had good body composition, because that’s about the max they can lay,” he commented.
The peak pheasant hatch in North Dakota occurs in mid-June each year, with incubation taking approximately 23 to 25 days, making this week the normal start of the nesting season for pheasants in the Roughrider state. During that time, nests and hens sitting on them are susceptible to flooding and predators. If a nest is destroyed by inundation or a racoon, skunk or badger eating the eggs, a hen will attempt another clutch, usually smaller in number later in the season. If the chicks hatch but are subsequently killed by predators such as coyotes or raptors or die from cold conditions when they have no feathers to regulate body heat, the mother bird will not re-nest. 2018 was notable for the number of late attempts at nesting, according to Gross.
“Reviewing wings from the harvest last year, there were a lot of late hatch birds,” Gross stated, adding that “second and third attempts were really good, but there were some November birds I had that were 15 weeks old, meaning they were born in August,” Gross stated.
The NDG&F will conduct roadside brood counts from mid-July to mid-August this summer to further index pheasant populations and gauge the success of this spring’s hatch and recruitment. Those results are typically released in early September.
Featured Photo: A rooster pheasant pokes around in residual grasses. More of last year’s vegetation on the landscape will provide better nesting cover for pheasants this spring. Simonson Photo.