Last year was a good year but it held some disappointments in certain areas of Idaho. All the signs were right for a bang-up season, as reported here, but many of the broods we saw early dwindled as the season approached. There were lots of birds from the year before but production fell short.
No one has offered any official explanation, so I will offer my own observations which at least a couple of biologists have averred are at least reasonable. Simply, the weather in southern Idaho was too dry too early. What I saw in the old brown hills of southwestern Idaho was a scimpy crop of bug life, particularly the farmers' bane-hoppers. The kids did not have enough to eat.
Remember that upland bird chicks come out of the egg hungry but momma does not provide milk. They must have high protein food close enough that little legs will carry them to feed. No bugs, no chicks.
Other issues may come into the question, such as adequate plant growth to provide cover from predators and the elements but they probably do not measure up to the matter of protein.
The year is one of the driest in memory, which helped bring last year's birds through the winter, but the timing of moisture was different. It did not come when it could have killed many new-hatched chicks but it did seem to be about right for bug life.
We have the right combination of factors for once. This happens so rarely that no dedicated bird hunter can afford to miss out.
Idaho Fish and Game lacks the budget to do really extensive bird counts but it does fly a good area of Hells Canyon to look for chukar every year.
That chukar count has been a fair indicator of upland populations in the 25 or so years I have been paying close attention. Granted, it is just one place and one species; local conditions can be contrary but it is an indicator.
The chukar count this August was the best since the banner year of 1987. The count was 142 birds per square mile this year, It was more than 200 in 1987 but do not hold your breath for another year like that one. This is well up from last year and the fourth in a string of increases.
Hungarian partridge are another matter, we do not count them until they are in the bag. Most years, however, what's good for chukar is good for huns.
According to my own observations and those of other birdbrains, the quail went completely nuts having kids this year. I counted 26 chicks about two-thirds grown in one flock on our place recently. Other folks are seeing the same. This could be one of those years when the Commission lets us have another couple of weeks on the season but counts have to meet certain criteria for that to happen.
I am hearing interesting stories of forest grouse numbers, at least here in the southwest. This does not always coincide with good news on other upland species.
No word on sharptails yet but I expect a better year than last, which was a real disappointment after several seasons of good to excellent hunting.
Where you can still find a pheasant, mommas did well for us this year. The ringneck story is all about habitat. Where there is lots of CRP ground, as in southeastern Idaho and the Lewiston-Moscow area, there are pheasant to be found. Where the old ways of irrigation have turned to sterile monoculture in the Magic Valley, forget it. Likewise in the Boise valley where so many smallish farms are now covered with subdivisions. Those of us who remember seeing 300 birds in an evening after work just do not go looking for pheasant much anymore; it's just too sad. And we have so many other kinds of upland birds to find elsewhere.