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NORTH DAKOTA OUTDOORS: Pheasants, ducks a mixed bag in 2010

North Dakota's pheasant and High Plains duck seasons close Sunday, so it's a good time for a review before we start talking about prospects for 2011.

Pheasants

The pheasant outlook for any year begins with winter, and the 2010 version was not as long or as snowy as 2009, which was one of the worst winters ever in terms of snow accumulation statewide. We still had our share of snow and cold, but it just wasn't as difficult for pheasants as the previous year.

As such, the 2010 spring spring pheasant crowing count survey revealed a 6 percent decrease statewide compared with 2009. Looking closer, the northwest was down 16 percent from 2009, while counts in the southwest and southeast were relatively unchanged. In the northeast where there are fewer birds, the counts decreased 10 percent.

Biologist Stan Kohn acknowledged, "This past winter (2009-10) did not appear to have a role in the lower crowing counts. It is probably the result of a lower number of adult birds surviving the winter of 2008-09, coupled with poor production in spring 2009 because of cool, wet weather at the time of the hatch, resulting in chick mortality and fewer young entering the population last fall."

Last summer also was warmer and a bit drier than 2009, which benefitted nesting birds. The Game and Fish Department's late summer brood survey indicated the state's total pheasant index was up 34 percent compared with 2009. But to put that in perspective, 2010 fall pheasant numbers were still roughly 40 percent lower than during the peak years of 2003-08.

"Good nesting and brooding cover, coupled with improved weather conditions, increased nesting success and brood/chick survival," Kohn said. "Consequently, more young birds were added to the population."

While no 2010 harvest figures are available, as Game and Fish Department biologists don't conduct the annual harvest survey until the season is over, anecdotal reports I received from hunters this fall suggest the season was on par with predictions.

Waterfowl

While snow, cold and extended winters handicap pheasants, ducks enjoy a wet spring, as was the case last year.

The annual spring breeding duck survey showed an index of more than 4.5 million birds, an increase of 12 percent from last year and 107 percent above the long-term average (1948-2009). The 2010 index was the third highest on record.

All species, except for widgeon showed an increase from last year. Pintails were up 10 percent and were at the highest level since 1970. Mallards were up 12 percent and were the fourth highest on record.

As spring transitioned into summer, the mid-July waterfowl production survey revealed the duck brood index was up 14 percent from 2009 and 63 percent above the long-term average. Believe it or not, but the water index in mid-July was down 14 percent from2009, but still 28 percent above the long-term average.

While our local duck production was up, I heard quite a few reports from hunters early that concentrations of birds were hard to find in some areas. As fall progressed, one could argue that it was more typical than others in recent memory, to the benefit of hunters. Corn and row crop harvest was on or even ahead of schedule, which along with less severe cold and snow made for a more steady waterfowl migration later on.

The way this winter is starting, it looks like another plus for ducks and a minus for pheasants, but we won't really know the full details for another two to three months.

Leier is a biologist with the Game and Fish Department. Reach him at dleier@nd.gov

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