By Nick Simonson
As spring finally settles in across the region, rooster pheasants are staking out their claim and managing their harem of hens in an annual ritual that fills the early morning air with the raspy call of competing cocks. From the edges of sloughs, along budding shelterbelts, and into the beige grasses of CRP stands just starting to green up along their bases, the crows of these colorful and aggressive birds establish territory between the males and let the females know of their presence. In turn, surveys of those calls give wildlife biologists a good gauge of how many pheasants made it through winter and provide another data point for hunters to get a feel as to how the fall hunting season may pan out five months down the road.
Following two significant late April snowstorms throughout North Dakota’s pheasant range this spring and a brutal drought in 2021, pheasant numbers have continued to remain suppressed from highs seen in the early 2000s. While recent weather events and a similar drought in 2017 have had an impact on bird numbers, the greatest element which has hit their populations in recent seasons is the lack of habitat due to expired CRP acres and limited renewal of marginal lands into conservation programs. As a result, North Dakota Game & Fish Department (NDG&F) Upland Game Biologist RJ Gross is hoping that populations can maintain their numbers from last year to this year, and this spring’s crowing counts, which run from May 1 to June 10 will be the first clue as to how the birds are doing.
“I’m expecting it to be down, hopefully not too much and not because of the winter or anything like that. The northwest might have seen a little bit of loss because of the last couple really bad April storms, but I really think we had such a good winter before that I think we should’ve been in pretty good shape. I’m hopeful there, but it will probably be down a bit just because of production last year and the bad drought. There’s not much worse for upland game production than drought,” Gross explains.
Driving approximately 100 routes in that forty-day stretch across the four surveyed districts – northwest, southwest, southeast and northeast – agents of the NDG&F listen for the calls of a rooster pheasant, stopping every two miles on the 20-mile stretch. Driven from about a half hour before sunrise until their completion, the surveyed stretch takes about an hour around the birds’ most active crowing time. The surveyor gets out of the vehicle, listens for two minutes and records the number of roosters heard in that 120-second span before moving on to the next stop. The best results occur on mornings where wind is minimal and birds are more active and easier to hear. To determine an average and get an acceptable sample, each route is surveyed three times during the spring window. From there, Gross explains, the data comes together to provide a sample and a comparison point to the previous year, and longer-term averages.
“We take the average of the highest counts and that’s how we’ll break it down by the districts and statewide, comparing that from year to year and to the long-term average, five-year and ten-year,” Gross explains, “so far the couple that I’ve done are about right on par with last year, so I would consider it a win if we’re even with last year,” he concludes.
In addition to the spring crowing counts, the NDG&F surveys three other major data points for pheasants in North Dakota: a summer roadside brood count which tallies juvenile birds and adults following the hatch and chick-rearing phase, hunter success surveys after the upland season ends, and winter gender surveys to determine hen-to-rooster ratios in winter. Results of the crowing counts are typically available in late June each year.
Simonson is the lead writer and editor of Dakota Edge Outdoors.
Featured Photo: Greening Up. A rooster pheasant works his way through the greening grass of spring. Simonson Photo.