By Nick Simonson
While lusher and greener conditions this year may be considerably different than the dry and arid elements of last summer’s drought which greatly impacted pheasant populations across North Dakota, the read at the halfway point of the North Dakota Game & Fish Department’s (NDG&F) annual roadside survey which estimates populations of partridge, grouse and pheasants, is concerning for its similarities to last season’s midpoint tallies, according to RJ Gross, Upland Game Biologist.
“Looking at the data, we are just about the same as last year; it was eerily similar. We saw ten less young as compared to last year statewide, but we saw more adults,” Gross related, adding, “I haven’t looked formally yet – I’ll do that at the end of the survey – but anecdotally the chicks I’ve been seeing are a lot smaller in size at this time than they should be, compared to other years. That’s probably because those first nesting attempts didn’t work; they failed from weather or were predated or something like that.”
A Triple Whammy
Hen pheasants often rely on carry-over vegetation from the previous year in which to make their nests. As much of the state’s grasslands were made sparser due to drought, and those areas of Conservation Reserve Program acres which normally cannot be hayed under the federal program were opened up to emergency efforts to feed livestock across the region last summer, there was little standing grass coming into the spring of 2022 for hens to lay their eggs in. To make matters worse, a late April snowstorm dumped two to four feet of snow across stretches of western and southwestern North Dakota, the primary range of the ringneck pheasant in the state, likely delaying first nests or limiting the viability of those early attempts hen pheasants made this spring. The continued loss of those idled marginal acres under both state and federal programs too is beginning to show up in the NDG&F summer surveys, with lower pheasant numbers corresponding to the lost habitats, particularly in southwestern North Dakota.
“Within the southwest there’s definitely spots where it’s really good and there’s spots where it’s really bad. A lot of that can be corresponding with how much CRP has been lost around some areas and parts where the drought was in the exceptional category. I’m hoping that that southwest turns around. But there’s some of our routes where historically the guys will fill up two or three pages of broods per route and they’re not seeing any this year, which is very alarming,” Gross relays.
Some Room for Optimism
Pheasants are frequent re-nesters, and if their first attempt fails due to weather or predation prior to the eggs hatching, hens will try again. And while egg numbers in second, third or even fourth attempts diminish with each try throughout the summer, it is likely those second or third attempts have been more successful this season as the melt from those spring snow events and follow-up rains helped spur the growth of grasses after last year’s dry season. The taller, thicker cover provides greater protection from predators, including skunks and racoons, and gives nesting birds and vulnerable chicks an overhead screen, concealing them from the eyes of avian predators such as hawks. The cover also provides a haven for insects such as beetles, grasshoppers, and slugs, which young upland birds eat in the first few weeks of life to gain the protein necessary to produce feathers and mature ahead of the fall. With the better cover later in the spring and early summer, Gross is hopeful that good results from later hatches and follow-up nesting efforts will be revealed in the back half of the NDG&F roadside brood counts, when more information typically comes in as birds mature and become more mobile.
“I always do a check at [the halfway] point to get an idea of what’s coming in and what we’re seeing. I always tell everyone to take that with a great of salt, because later in August, in these last three weeks, we’ll get a lot more data coming in. The chicks are bigger, they’re out more, there’s more haying and more wheat and small grains coming off the landscape,” Gross concludes about the two halves of the survey.
The summer roadside survey began on July 20 and runs until the end of August. NDG&F agents such as Gross collectively drive approximately one hundred 20-mile-long routes around the state three times each during the 40-day stretch, counting the number of partridge, grouse and ringneck pheasants they see in the early morning hours, breaking the birds down by juveniles and adults while also tallying other species such as mourning doves. Results are then compiled and released by the agency typically in the second week of September, giving hunters a guide as to what should be expected when they hit the field for upland game this fall. Last year, surveys revealed a drop in tallied pheasants by 23 percent and pheasant broods observed dipped by 30 percent from 2020.
This year the partridge and grouse hunting season begins on Sept. 10 and pheasant hunting season starts on Oct. 8. Both seasons close Jan. 1, 2023.
Featured Photo: In Hiding. Early indications show low numbers of pheasants at the halfway point of the NDG&F roadside surveys this summer, on par with last season’s tallies at their midpoint. The last few weeks of the route-based surveys will be telling as pheasant chicks mature and become more mobile. Simonson Photo.