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Published June 11, 2013, 11:05 AM

Rain: A blessing and curse for upland game birds

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Rain is generally a good thing on the prairie — unless there is too much of it like this spring.

By: BRIAN GEHRING,The Bismarck Tribune, Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Rain is generally a good thing on the prairie — unless there is too much of it like this spring.

The rain has been both a blessing and a curse to agricultural producers, and to a lesser degree, the same is true for wildlife, especially upland game birds.

Stan Kohn, upland game management supervisor for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, told The Bismarck Tribune that the downside of all the rain is it has likely pushed back nesting seven to 10 days for upland species.

The upside, however, is there ought to be plenty of dense nesting cover for the birds once they do hatch, leading to decent chick recruitment.

That should mean more birds in the field come this fall, Kohn said. That is if June weather returns to more normal conditions.

After coming out of their winter survival mode, upland game birds like pheasants begin staking out mating territories and nesting sites in April.

But the blizzard in mid-April likely pushed that schedule back somewhat. Kohn said he doesn't think there was much mortality as a result of the storm since it was contained to one day and temperatures weren't that harsh.

Normally, pheasants will begin initiating nesting around the first of May and start incubating eggs about May 24.

But this spring has been anything but normal. Eggs start to hatch around the middle of June.

Kohn said when the hatch does roll around, the abundant rainfall should provide more than adequate nesting cover.

"There is a lot of new habitat out there now because of the fantastic early growth," Kohn said. "It's been phenomenal."

The new habitat Kohn is referring to comes after a drought-plagued summer and fall a year ago that left little cover going into this past winter.

Even after record snowfall in April in many places in the state, May started out dry.

"Some of that habitat was not available (a few) weeks ago," Kohn said.

Kohn said most of the best upland game territory in the state should be poised for a good year from a chick production standpoint while areas on the fringe of the best range, like the northeast part of the state, probably won't gain much numbers-wise.

Kohn said good nesting and cover conditions this year coupled with the mild winter of 2011 should give upland game species back-to-back seasons for good production.

"Last fall, our numbers were pretty decent," he said, referring to a nearly 60 percent increase in pheasants statewide in 2012.

A couple of factors contributed to last year's good production of pheasants: a mild winter that brought hens into nesting season in good condition and near-perfect spring weather.

Kohn said going into this spring's nesting season, it could be the best breeding stock for upland game species since 2008.

Kohn said in early roadside crowing counts, it appears it has taken longer for pheasant hens to group up with roosters and sharptail grouse seemed to have stayed later on leks, or dancing grounds.

In the past few weeks, not many pheasant hens have been seen along roadsides and in ditches, indicating nesting has likely started.

One thing farmers and others have been seeing this spring is hens nesting out in stubble, with more producers going to no-till operations.

With higher commodity prices, many farmers are opting to put Conservation Reserve Program and other lands back into production and the pheasants especially have seemed to adapt to the loss of that habitat.

Most signs point to what could be a later hatch this spring for pheasants, grouse and partridge, and the same seems to be holding true for turkeys, Kohn said.

"The gobbling intensity seems to be lasting longer than usual," he said.

Flooding could be an issue in some areas, Kohn said, but if nests have been washed out by floodwaters, upland game birds will re-nest.

Of course, the key period will come in the weeks following the hatch.

Cover should be thick for chicks, Kohn said, and if the weather warms up and there are no major hailstorms or other issues, hunters should see plenty of birds in the field this fall.

He said with the nesting and roosting cover, escape cover and what should be a banner year for insect production for the chicks to fatten up on, it should be a good year for upland game birds to survive until the hunting season.

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