NORTH DAKOTA OUTDOORS: Pheasant picture mixed, but ducks look good

The days of real summer are slowly dwindling, as school athletics practices are under way, and games are just around the corner. But there's still time for getting out for a few casts or a night in the tent, and mid-August also means we're develo...

The days of real summer are slowly dwindling, as school athletics practices are under way, and games are just around the corner. But there's still time for getting out for a few casts or a night in the tent, and mid-August also means we're developing a little clearer picture of how our fall pheasant and duck numbers will unfold.


Going into early summer, the annual pheasant crowing count survey indicated 25 percent fewer birds than in 2008, which wasn't at all surprising considering the intensity and length of the recent winter. Every late storm was another hit to the potential survival of roosters and hens.

Some fringe areas of the pheasant range, such as the northeast (51 percent), had considerably lower numbers, while the historical pheasant belt of the southwest was off by 10 percent. While the declines were significant, the crowing count numbers in 2009 were still above numbers from 2005-07.

So, based on spring numbers of roosters alone, fall still held promise, as the three years before 2008 were very good for pheasant hunting in North Dakota.


But spring rooster number are only part of the fall equation. One concern for biologists was a lower ratio of hen pheasants to roosters observed during the spring survey. Biologists normally see about three to five hens for every rooster in spring, but this year, that ratio slipped down to the 1-to-1 and 1-to-2 range.

Fewer hens mean reduced reproduction potential. Early returns from the Game and Fish Department's summer brood surveys are indicating just that. When those survey numbers are finalized in a few weeks, we'll have a more accurate assessment of fall pheasant numbers, but few hunters or biologists will be surprised if both pheasant and sharp-tailed grouse reproduction is down.

And don't forget the loss of about 500,000 acres of Conservation Reserve Program grasslands the past couple of years, with possibly another 500,000 acres on the way out within the next couple of years. That's a loss of about one-third of this beneficial conservation habitat that has accounted for higher populations of not just pheasants, but deer and ducks as well.


Speaking of waterfowl, with all the runoff from winter snows to help recharge dry prairie potholes, it's no surprise the spring index of breeding ducks increased 18 percent from last year. Just as important, the spring count was 87 percent higher than the long-term average.

As with pheasants and many other wildlife populations, comparing current numbers with both a recent and long-term history provide a better overall picture rather than simply trying to digest raw statistics from one year to the next.

When comparing numbers for individual species, bright spots were the pintail (up 157 percent and the highest since 1972) and northern shovelers (up 102 percent and the highest on record). Biologist also recorded gains for blue-winged teal, mallards, wigeon, green-winged teal and canvasback.

Gadwalls, scup, redhead and ruddy ducks had lower numbers than in 2008, though counts for all these species still were well-above the long-term average.


The spring water index showed the largest single-year turnaround in the 62-year history of the survey, according to Mike Johnson, the Game and Fish Department's game management section leader. The index was up 293 percent from 2008 and 69 percent above the long-term average. It was the eighth highest in survey history and the highest since 1999.

It's evident that wet conditions directly influenced duck numbers. Summer brood survey numbers should come out soon and provide a better assessment of what North Dakota will contribute to the fall flight. Keep up with the latest information on the Game and Fish Department's Web site,

Like it or not, we're on the fast track to fall, and so far, it looks like despite the long, drawn-out winter, hunters will again have reason to smile as they take to the fields and marshes.

Leier is a biologist with the Game and Fish Department. He can be reached at . Read his blog daily at .

Related Topics: HUNTING
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