Early Signs Good for Game Birds
Itís way too early for scientific guesses on game bird populations from biologists yet but anecdotal information indicates good things for this fall.
by Ed Mitchell
Fish and Game surveys are done in August after broods are off the nest and these counts do provide the most reliable information on bird numbers. By then, spring weather has done good or ill for the young birds and they are well on their way to adulthood, except for the inevitable late broods with hens that lost their first clutch or two.
What we do have now are counts of sage and sharptail grouse on their leks, the observations of turkey hunters and the good olí boy network of folks who pay attention to birds all year round.
My statistician friends are not impressed with this sort of information. They mutter about "confidence intervals" and other arcane phrases that imply the rest of us donít know anything for sure, so we ought to keep quiet. The problem with them is that, by the time they quit arguing with one another and publish their figures, the rest of us already know where weíre going this season and what we will be hunting. So we will forge ahead with the coffee shop guesses.
Sage grouse lek counts sound a little better than they have for several years. Donít expect any big comeback stories for the big grouse but they have had more than three years of back-to-back decent springs and more lush summer habitat. In the short run, the drought years knocked back numbers in the late 80s, early 90s. Over the longer haul, all us old desert rats are much concerned for our biggest native game bird. Big burns, disappearance of understory and conversion to grasslands have dried up Idahoís oceans of sagebrush in many places. Month-long seasons wonít come again any time soon. Though cutting back the seasons has been tried before and has no track record of success, itís a matter of doing the only thing we know how.
This fallís outlook for sharptails is a shiny bright spot, judging by the number of males doing their dances on the leks right now. The sharptail story keeps getting better and better. This is a tale of habitat, plain and simple: the longer the Conservation Reserve Program pays to let the grass grow tall, thick and undisturbed, the more sharptails we have.
The grouse nest early, so are most vulnerable to cold spring storms that chill and kill the chicks. Normal weather means good things for these birds.
My own observation of valley quail makes me wonder if these little buzz-bombs are becoming tougher. We figure on losing 75-80 percent to normal winter weather. True, this last winter never really turned mean cold but I canít tell that the flocks I see most days are much smaller than they were last December. Three tremendous quail seasons in a row is so much to hope for that superstition wonít let me think about the possibility so far from the season.
The winter appears to have let our remnant pheasant populations off lightly as well. I think I am seeing a few more birds where there is pheasant cover. Those of us who remember the glory days simply donít care much to talk about ringnecks any more. We have tremendous bird hunting in Idaho but pheasants donít figure into the mix much these days. Much as it hurts to say it, if pheasants are your passion, youíd best be making reservations in South Dakota or Kansas.
Even I wonít hazard a guess on chukar or forest grouse yet. Chukar numbers will be easier to predict once the water warms up so we can go bassiní on the big Snake River reservoirs that lay in the middle of the best chukar country. Bass weather usually coincides with chukar courting time, making bird call counting a distinctly pleasurable piece of work.