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Brood surveys help wildlife officials determine bird populations in North Dakota.

It’s the middle of summer and hunting seasons are still weeks away.

In the meantime, North Dakota Game and Fish Department biologists are busy with their summer upland game and waterfowl brood surveys that will provide some perspective on hunting prospects for when the seasons do open.

The brood surveys are either validation of what spring surveys of waterfowl, pheasants and grouse may have already established for expectations, or they might identify a reason why production numbers aren’t headed in the same direction as spring numbers.

For instance, an increase in the spring pheasant crowing count from one year to the next doesn’t necessarily mean more pheasants for that fall’s season, compared to the previous year. Weather and habitat conditions are key factors that determine whether brood production and subsequent fall population estimates are up or down.

Just to get a sense of anticipation going, here’s a recap of where this year’s spring counts came in.

Waterfowl

The Game and Fish Department’s annual spring breeding duck survey conducted in May indicated an index of 3.4 million birds, up 20 percent from last year.

Migratory Game Bird Supervisor Mike Szymanski said the index was the 22nd highest on record and stands 40% above the long-term (1948-2018) average.

“Breeding duck numbers generally trend with wetland conditions,” Szymanski said. “The large number of ducks in North Dakota this spring can again be attributed to the large number of ducks that we have been producing for many years.”

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Survey results indicated numbers for all primary species were up from their 2018 estimates, including mallards (16%), green-winged teal (81%) and ruddy ducks (57%). All other ducks ranged from 5 (scaup) to 40% (pintails) above last year’s numbers.

All species, with the exception of pintails and blue-winged teal, were above the 71-year average.

The number of temporary and seasonal wetlands was substantially higher than last year, as figures show the spring water index was up 46%.

Pheasants and Grouse

North Dakota’s spring pheasant population index was up about 6% statewide. The primary regions holding pheasants ranged from up 14% in the southeast and up 17% in the northwest, to down 8% in the southwest.

“We are still seeing the effects of the drought of 2017 that resulted in low chick survival,” said R.J. Gross, upland bird biologist for the Game and Fish Department. “Typically, a spring pheasant population is composed primarily of yearling roosters with nearly as many 2-year-olds, and currently we have very few 2-year-old roosters.”

Pheasant crowing counts are conducted each spring throughout North Dakota. Observers drive specified 20-mile routes, stopping at predetermined intervals, and counting the number of pheasant roosters heard crowing over a two-minute period during the stop.

For sharp-tailed grouse, observers count male grouse on select dancing grounds each spring. This year, the numbers were up 9% compared to last year.

And now we wait until the brood surveys are finished, to see if fall population estimates will match the positive direction identified in spring counts.

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Doug Leier is a biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.

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