By Doug Leier
Hints of North Dakota’s fall duck and pheasant populations were revealed in spring.
Upland Stable in Spring
For starters, the pheasant population index was about the same as last year, according to the state Game and Fish Department’s 2021 spring crowing count survey.
Pheasant crowing counts are conducted each spring throughout North Dakota. Observers drive specified 20-mile routes, stopping at predetermined intervals, and counting the number of pheasant roosters heard crowing over a 2-minute period.
The number of pheasant crows heard are compared to previous years’ data, providing a trend summary. Not a census but an index to compare to last year.
R.J. Gross, upland game management biologist, said the number of roosters heard crowing in spring was up about 3% statewide.
“The statewide number might be a bit misleading since we are notably down in the southwest, while most of the state benefitted from good reproduction in 2020 and a mild winter,” Gross said.
The primary regions holding pheasants showed 18.4 crows per stop in the southwest, down from 19.6 in 2020; 14.3 crows per stop in the northwest, up from 12.2; and 14.5 crows per stop in the southeast, up from 13.6. The count in the northeast, which is not a primary region for pheasants, was 5.2 crows per stop, up from 3.4 last year.
Gross said spring drought conditions caused delayed growth in nesting cover, brood rearing cover and croplands across the state, while extended drought conditions prevented insect hatches, reducing forage availability to chicks for brood rearing.
Waterfowl Hit by Dry Summer
Very dry conditions, along with a decline in numbers of breeding ducks compared to last year, were found during the North Dakota Game and Fish Department’s 74th annual spring breeding duck survey.
The 2021 May water index was down 80% from 2020, and nearly 68% below the 1948-2020 average. The percentage-based change in the number of wetlands holding water is the greatest seen in the history of the survey.
Mike Szymanski, Department migratory game bird management supervisor, said 2020 was the sixth wettest year and 2021, according to the survey, is the fifth driest in 74 years.
“That’s an indication of how dynamic this system is that we work in,” he said. “We essentially had no temporary and seasonal basins holding water on the landscape. And that has huge ramifications for duck production in the state.
“In the spring if a hen sees an area with poor or declining wetland conditions, she’s going to work under the assumption that there’s no place to raise a brood later,” he added. “Even though we counted a fairly large number of ducks (2.9 million) on our survey, most of those ducks were not going to nest.”
While this year’s breeding duck index was down nearly 27%, it was above the 73-year average by about 19%, and the 48th highest on record.
Brood counts for upland game and waterfowl have been completed and after those numbers are tabulated the production from this year’s nesting ducks and pheasants will give a stronger indication as to the fall pre-hunt populations compared to past years.
Leier is an outreach biologist with the North Dakota Game & Fish Department.
Featured Photo: Upland numbers remained stable this spring and NDG&F agents find themselves midway through the state’s roadside survey which will provide a clearer picture of the state’s pheasant and grouse broods and overall populations. Waterfowl brood surveys, however, are complete and the results are not good. NDG&F Photo.