Anderson: Conditions promising for ducks, pheasants

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 31, 2012 - 8:05 PM

If the weather is wet enough for ducks yet dry enough for pheasants during June breeding season, the region's bird hunters might be in luck.

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Weird as Minnesota's spring and early summer weather has been, it's possible yet that ducks and pheasants here will nest successfully, perhaps even enjoying above-average reproduction -- despite May's frequent and heavy rains.

Also on the positive front, duck and even pheasant nesting in the Dakotas might yet also succeed, and perhaps be above average, in part because neither North nor South Dakota experienced the continual and heavy widespread downpours Minnesota did in May.

Challenges remain before hunters can look forward to good bird hunting throughout the region this fall.

Pheasant hens, for example, need relatively dry and warm weather during the first three weeks of June to successfully bring off broods, while duck production, particularly in the Dakotas, will depend on June weather that is wet enough to sustain the smaller, temporary wetlands many ducklings need to survive their first weeks of life.

A delicate balance.

Here's a regional breakdown:

• Minnesota. "We've got our fingers crossed the next two weeks will be warm and dry," said Matt Holland, senior Pheasants Forever field coordinator living in New London, Minn.

Obviously, deluges that rained across southern Minnesota through May didn't help nesting pheasants. But hens that lose their nests, whether to flooding, predators or other causes, will make second and even third attempts at bringing off broods.

It's cool, wet weather in June that's the dealbreaker for these birds, because once hens hatch their fragile young, they're done nesting for the year.

Last year, Minnesota pheasants dipped 64 percent from 2010, according to Department of Natural Resources roadside counts. If these birds are to rebound this year, they need to survive not only the perils of June weather, they likely have to nest someplace other than in fields of alfalfa and grasses, which are undergoing their first cuttings.

"The timing of the hay harvest this year is not good for pheasants," Holland said.

Ducks, meanwhile, seem to be primed for reasonably successful reproduction in Minnesota. I drove across west-central portions of the state last weekend, and found lots of standing water, and saw a fair number of duck pairs.

Roger Strand, a retired Willmar physician and waterfowl fanatic, reports that reasonably good numbers of wood ducks returned this spring to the more than 100 houses he has on his property, along with plentiful blue-winged teal. Mallards were relatively few, he said.

• South Dakota. "Right now, we've got a lot of birds incubating," said Ben Bigalke, state wildlife biologist in Huron, S.D. "I would say the weather has been pretty good this spring overall for nesting. Our grasslands are in good shape. We've had some rain, but definitely not too much."

Peak pheasant hatching in South Dakota occurs June 12-15. Last year's August roadside counts showed birds in the state down 47 percent from 2010, but near South Dakota's 10-year average. Still, about 1.5 million roosters were taken by hunters last fall, down from about 1.8 million in 2010.

Pheasants Forever regional representative Mike Stephenson of Mitchell, S.D., agrees conditions are favorable for a good, if not excellent, hatch. "I think we'll have an increase in the upcoming hatch," he said. "One report I've heard says there are 20 percent more adult birds on the landscape than at this time last year, and that's good."

Breeding duck numbers haven't been tallied yet by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in South Dakota or elsewhere, including across prairie Canada. But most observers agree good numbers of ducks are in South Dakota, and nesting prospects are good.

• North Dakota. Wet conditions whacked pheasant numbers in North Dakota in recent years. The state's 2011 roadside survey reported a population 36 percent smaller than that of 2010, leading to a harvest forecast lower than any in North Dakota since 2001.

This year should be better, considering the mild winter that likely carried over a relatively high number of birds, and the fact that the state is covered with less water now than in recent years.

Chances for good duck production are similarly positive, said Johann Walker, Ducks Unlimited director of conservation planning for the Great Plains region, based in Bismarck, N.D.

"My sense is we're looking at a better-than-average year," Walker said. "I've heard some good things from western Saskatchewan, also. Generally, my impression is favorable."

None of which means ducks -- or pheasants -- will be plentiful come October. But so far in the bird recruitment process, conditions are pretty good. Don't sell the old scattergun yet.

Dennis Anderson • danderson@startribune.com

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