North Dakota surveys show more birds in the field, with an overall 38 percent increase in survey counts; good nesting season to thank.
By Tom Carpenter
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North Dakota’s annual roadside survey of upland gamebirds shows a good jump in the number of pheasants counted – 38 percent, to be exact. That’s good news, though the state’s birds are still working to come back from the drought of 2017. Still, the trend is good and the bottom line is clear: Overall, there will be more roosters to hunt in North Dakota this fall.
LAST YEAR’S HUNT
“Hunting was difficult last year,” says Rodney J. Gross, upland game management biologist with North Dakota Game and Fish. “Spring and summer were very wet, and many gravel roads were impassable, harvest was severely delayed, and then fall itself was abnormally wet.” To top it off, a blizzard hammered much of the state for the resident opener.
“Overall, fewer hunters went out, and there was plenty of cover for the birds to hide in,” says Gross.
WEATHER AND CONDITIONS
“Three-quarters of the state had a very mild winter, with the Southeast being the only area with a true North Dakota winter,” says Gross. “We lost some birds in the Southeast, but birds in the rest of the state came through just fine.”
“Conditions for nesting and brood-rearing were above average in most of the state,” adds Gross. “We had plenty of residual cover and moisture from last fall’s wet period. Some parts of the state did experience abnormally dry periods this spring and summer, but nesting was still successful.” That bodes well for a good hunt this fall.
HABITAT, BROODS AND COUNTS
“Habitat and crops look to be setting up well for the fall,” says Gross. “The crops should be off in time for hunters to get out and chase roosters in North Dakota,” and that is always good news.
“The hatch did seem to be slightly earlier this year,” says Gross. “We observed more broods and chicks on our annual late summer roadside count in 2020 compared to 2019.”
Total pheasants observed per 100 miles in late summer’s survey are up 38 percent from 2019, but 14 percent below the 10-year average. Broods per 100 miles are up 30 percent from 2019, but 16% below the 10-year average. Average brood size is up 10 percent from 2019 and 5 percent below the 10-year average. The final summary was based on 275 survey runs made along 100 brood routes across North Dakota.
“Local populations are building back up,” says Gross. “But they are not at the point yet of spreading out into new territories. Hunters will need to work to find localized hotspots of pheasants.” Still, the increase in numbers bodes well if you have been looking to get back to North Dakota, or take a jaunt there. Where to go?
Observers in the Northwest counted 12 broods and 91 pheasants per 100 miles, up from 5 broods and 39 pheasants in 2019. Average brood size was 6.
Statistics from southwestern North Dakota indicated 8 broods and 70 pheasants per 100 miles, up from 6 broods and 41 pheasants in 2019. Average brood size was 6 chicks.
Results from the Southeast showed 5 broods and 41 pheasants per 100 miles, down from 6 broods and 51 pheasants in 2019. Average brood size was 5. Expect bird numbers to be close to last year.
The northeast district, generally containing secondary pheasant habitat with lower pheasant numbers compared to the rest of the state, showed 3 broods and 22 pheasants per 100 miles, compared to 3 broods and 15 pheasants last year. Average brood size was 6.
“The northwestern and southwestern parts of the state will have the most roosters for hunters to pursue,” says Gross succinctly.
“Scouting is key,” advises Gross. “Drive. Look for the good habitat. And don’t be afraid to ask permission to hunt private land,” especially after the opening week or two. North Dakota folks are a friendly lot and might share a few birds once the relatives and other guests have hunted. “Then just walk and hunt.”
Jesse Kolar, North Dakota’s upland game supervisor, echoes that thought: “Get out and walk some grass! People spend more time virtual scouting on their computers and phones than they do hunting. Use all that time to mow lawns, paint the house or work overtime, so you can spend a few more hours in the field finding birds. Most birds can’t be seen from a computer or sometimes even the windshield, so getting out and walking more miles is the only consistent way to put up more birds in the fall.”
Tom Carpenter is editor at Pheasants Forever