By Nick Simonson
North Dakota’s upland bird populations came out of the mild winter relatively well. With above average temperatures from December to March, and below average snowfall across the state, sharptailed grouse and ring-necked pheasants made it to spring with no significant mortality, according to RJ Gross, Upland Game Biologist with the North Dakota Game & Fish Department (NDG&F). However, the lack of meltwater, limited spring rains and lingering drought conditions from the summer and fall of 2020 may pose a major stumbling block to recruiting the next generation of upland birds, as 85 percent of the state is categorized as being in an extreme drought.
An Easy Winter
In mid-April, Gross and other agents of the NDG&F began their lekking surveys for the state’s sharptailed grouse populations, and as expected with the milder conditions leading up to the birds’ mating rituals, populations appeared stable. While many observers found fewer active leks – the places where male sharptailed grouse perform a spread-winged dance for the female birds – those active leks attracted more birds this spring. The dry conditions impacted some access to the grassland areas hosting these dance-offs, but agents were able to carry out a successful spring survey; the numbers from which will be tallied shortly.
“We’re still looking at all the data, getting it all in, but if I were to guess, [sharptail numbers] would be steady or could be a little up as we didn’t have a winter and survival was good,” Gross reports, “we had some limitations getting places – not because of the usual snow still being around – but it was very dry, travel restrictions, fire danger, burn bans and things like that,” he continued, adding that caution was taken to prevent hot mufflers from ATVs or trucks from contacting the dry spring grasses near leks.
It could be said that conditions were too good for those tallying pheasants this year, as NDG&F agents across the map struggled to find the snow cover to help with the annual winter sex survey which counts the number of hens and roosters on the landscape and determines the ratio in a given area. The surveys require a minimum of six inches of snow on the ground to help the birds, especially hens, stand out against the white background for easier counting. Without the contrast, counts aren’t as accurate, and as a result, only one survey was conducted by an observer in the southeastern portion of the state after a snow event. Gross is hopeful that the ongoing spring rooster crowing count will shed more light on the state’s population of pheasants.
Hoping for Spring Showers
That survey, which began May 1 consists of more than 100 routes of 20 miles each scattered throughout the state. On those trails from a half hour before sunrise until a half hour after it, agents stop and listen for the distinct crowing sound of a rooster pheasant and record the number heard at each point. From these surveys, the NDG&F gets an idea as to how many rooster pheasants survived the winter and how it compares to previous springs and historical averages. The next major survey will occur later in summer when Gross and others will travel those routes again, looking for pheasant chicks and other upland birds in the agency’s annual brood count. That is likely where a dry spring could prove to be a tougher challenge than a rough winter.
“If we don’t get the rain in the time to complete their food’s life cycle – bugs – the first two weeks of a chick’s life when they’re hatched – and in North Dakota the peak is right around June 10, June 15 every year,” Gross states of the moisture required to sustain slugs, beetles, spiders and other insects young pheasants eat, “if we don’t have bugs at that time for those chicks to eat, survivability will be very low, like in 2017 which was recent enough that everyone remembers how bad it was for pheasants during that, and we’re right on par with that, it was extreme drought then and we’re in extreme drought now, so there is cause for concern,” he concludes.
While heavy spring rains often cause problems with flooded nests, and too much moisture can hinder a hatch, at this point the tradeoff of having the food to sustain young birds is the far greater need, along with the benefit of taller and more vigorous grass growth providing cover for nesting sharptailed grouse and pheasant hens. The protein obtained from slugs, beetles, grasshoppers and other insects helps chicks survive and grow their feathers to regulate body temperature amongst other functions; the taller grass and thicker vegetation also provides better cover for broods hiding from avian predators such as hawks. Gross expects grouse to be on nests by now with some egg laying occurring, and pheasants normally follow. Eggs from both species take around 23 days to incubate and first hatches of each can be encountered in mid-June, on the average, in North Dakota.
Featured Photo: On the Move. Early in the brood season, pheasant and sharptailed grouse chicks need protein from insect forage to develop their feathers and mature. Bugs are not as plentiful when drier conditions, like the current drought, have a grip on the landscape.