ALWAYS IN SEASON: Wicked weather is danger for open-country birds

A wicked winter such as this can put open country birds at risk. This year, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department is monitoring prairie game birds.

A wicked winter such as this can put open country birds at risk. This year, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department is monitoring prairie game birds.

These are what scientists call "gallinaceous fowl."

Most of the rest of us think of them as "chicken-like birds."

There are several species of wild chickens in the Red River Valley, but only two are real natives.

Of course, these are the species most likely to survive a winter on the Northern Great Plains.


The most abundant of these is the sharp-tailed grouse, a species that seems to be increasing in numbers, at least in my neighborhood.

Ruffed grouse occur here, too, but only in well-wooded areas. They are much more common farther east. Winters are a little easier there, just as cold and just as snowy, but quite a bit less windy because the trees provide shelter.

It's the wind that jeopardizes open country birds.

The most frequent victims are ring-necked pheasants. Pheasants are native to East Asia, but they have been introduced as game birds pretty much wherever on Earth there's suitable habitat.

This is the most-sought-after game bird in most of North America, and governments and sportsmen's clubs alike go to great lengths to establish and maintain pheasant populations.

There are some challenges.

Chief of these are the birds themselves.

Pheasants haven't grasped the secrets of survival on the Northern Plains. They habitually turn away from the wind, which means that snow is driven into their feathers and against their skins.


The birds freeze to death.

Sharp-tailed grouse burrow into the snow, avoiding the wind.

Of course, they're natives.

The gray partridge knows this trick, too, because it comes from equally snowy country. They are native to the steppes of Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

Like pheasants, partridges have been introduced wherever habitat will sustain them. In fact, the partridge is among the most successful immigrant species.

Partridges reached Britain as much as 800 years ago, partly because hunting with falcons was popular with royalty and the gentry. Partridges are excellent quarry for falcons.

This is a species that demonstrates the danger of depending on common names for birds. In much of North America, including northern Minnesota, partridge refers to ruffed grouse.

Partridges are common in the Red River Valley. They can be difficult to find during spring and summer, but in winter, they are more conspicuous. I encounter a couple of flocks along County Road 33, my morning commute, almost every day. I've been keeping track of the number of birds in each flock, and it has gone down. I think the weather is to blame, although others blame predators such as snowy owls or rough-legged hawks. Neither are primarily bird eaters, however.


The third introduced chicken-like bird here is the wild turkey. Turkeys are native to North America, of course, but before European settlement, they didn't occur farther north than Iowa and South Dakota

Today, turkeys are common, but like ruffed grouse, they occur mostly in wooded areas, and many depend on handouts from humans to make it through our winters.

Greater prairie chickens might be considered natives here, and certainly they are native North Americans. Populations were small until agriculture began in earnest. The combination of open fields with seeds to glean and native prairie with abundant cover brought a boom in prairie chicken numbers, and this was the bird most sought by pioneer hunters.

But once the prairie disappeared, so did the chickens. They've been reintroduced in grasslands in Grand Forks County, and they appear to be holding their own.

While winter can be fatal to these birds, spring is probably the more dangerous season.

All of these birds nest on the ground, and wet weather in spring can be catastrophic. Nests are flooded and eggs lost.

This may account for the increase in sharp-tailed grouse in the western part of Grand Forks County, where drainage is better and flooding less likely.

A decade ago, I seldom saw sharp-tails on my rambles around the neighborhood. Today, I'm confident I could find several within a mile or two of my place.


So, Suezette and I share a bond with these birds. We moved out here to stay dry, just like the sharp-tails.

Mike Jacobs is editor and publisher of the Herald.

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