By Nick Simonson
Habitat and food. Food and habitat. The two biggest driving factors for the survival and propagation of pheasants in North Dakota often hang on what happens in winter, and where birds live and eat are often affected by the conditions that arrive from December to March on the northern plains. In years of significant snowfall, sloughs can be swallowed up by snowdrifts and thermal cover can be hard to come by. Fields blanketed under drifts are tough for even the biggest bird to get down to. Looking back to the winter of 1996-97, pheasant populations plummeted when more than ten feet of snow covered the state. However, as new rounds of CRP took hold and acres of habitat increased over the following ten years, bird numbers rebounded quickly and a stretch of mild winters meant easy access to fields.
In those winters where the state is spared, much like what has been experienced in the first half of this season, existing habitat remains open and plentiful to help birds find nighttime thermal cover in deep sloughs and have plenty of places to loaf and run in relatively snow-free areas of grass. Across the pheasant range in southern and western North Dakota, the rebounding acres of grassland and remaining wetland habitat are being aided by mild conditions, spurring at least cautious optimism for successful survival into spring, according to RJ Gross, North Dakota Game & Fish Department (NDG&F) Upland Game Biologist. However, the loss of heavy thermal cover can quickly become a factor if weather patterns shift and late-season snow becomes an issue.
“In North Dakota, winter is our limiting factor and the winter habitat looked okay. I was kind of worried this fall around deer season, there sure were a lot of cattail sloughs that went up in flames, which is tough to see just because not just upland birds but a lot of other wildlife use them for winter escape cover,” Gross relates.
With more than three-quarters of the state having less than two inches of snow on the ground and a snow line setting up on the far eastern edge of the pheasant range as of the halfway point in the winter, fields remain open for birds to get out and scratch up some food as well, bolstering their body condition as the region makes the turn toward spring. The fact that crop harvest in the fall of 2020 was much more successful than in 2019 made it easier for pheasants to find grains on the ground, and without much snow to get through and warmer than average temperatures this season to allow for more movement, they’re frequently feeding.
“There’s plenty of food out there and not very much snow for the pheasants and all upland birds to be scratching through, so their body condition should be really good right now,” Gross explains, “every day when I’m driving around looking for pheasants trying to count them, they’re out there in the fields eating,” he concludes.
Conditions are almost too ideal for Gross and his team of surveyors at the NDG&F, as the agency’s winter hen-to-rooster survey has been delayed by the good conditions. Utilized to calculate the ratio of female to male birds remaining after each hunting season, the program relies on at least a moderate amount of snow to help observers record the number of total birds and those of each gender they encounter on their routes. This year, with the noted lack of white on the ground, they are unable to run the routes in a manner consistent with previous years and one that aids in the effective tallying of birds. However, Gross feels that either way is a win-win for his team of upland observers, as light snow may help pull off a survey later in the season; but no snow, which prevents those efforts, means an even easier winter for the state’s pheasant populations.
“It’s at a pretty good standstill because you need a level cover of snow and a lot of places in the state we don’t have that,” Gross says of the winter survey, “maybe pretty soon we can go out and start doing that, but we’ll do that all the way through March usually and pheasants will be grouped up.”
As things sit now, the food is readily accessible to pheasants and other upland birds like grouse and partridge, helping to build on last season’s rebound, and the habitat that remains is unhindered by snow throughout the birds’ range and things are looking good headed into the final six weeks of the season.
Featured Photo: With limited snow on the ground, pheasant populations are doing well finding food and places to hide at the halfway point of the season. Simonson Photo.