The November 11 opening of pheasant and quail season is months away, but Jeff Prendergast says there’s reason to be hopeful. Spring surveys of both species came back with good results, though neither factor in this year’s production of young birds.
“This year our crow surveys finally returned to pre-drought conditions,” said Prendergast, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism pheasant biologist. “Our state-wide average was 15.5 crows per stop. Before the the drought, through 2010, the average was 14.5 per stop.”
Prendergast was referring to the department’s annual survey when about 55 employees, which includes biologists, game wardens and some public lands employees, monitor 63 prescribed routes across the western two-thirds of Kansas. Surveyors stop every two miles, and note the number of rooster pheasants they hear. The surveys have followed the same criteria since 1998. Survey dates were April 25-May 15.
This year’s survey showed a 30 percent improvement over 2016 numbers. Southwest Kansas had the highest numbers, but all four of Kansas’ pheasant regions stayed stable or showed improvement.
But it’s what happens this time of the year - nesting success and brood survival- has more bearing on this fall’s pheasant population. Prendergast, again, likes the way things are developing.
“Conditions right now are good to excellent across most of our pheasant range,” said Prendergast. “Any hens that had to abandon a first nesting attempt should have good success re-nesting. We’ve been pretty wet, which helps. We figure we have about a 30-day nesting period when we’re in extreme drought but when it’ wet it goes up to 120 to 130 days.” Prendergast said those numbers are from research done in Nebraska.
Prendergast ranked this spring’s counts on whistling quail as the highest in the survey’s history, with some important caveats. The survey is only in its 20th year, and this year’s counts were only three percent above last year. The June 1-16 survey of 76 routes also showed some sizable changes from last year’s survey.
“It’s rated as stable, but we had a large jump in the Smoky Hills region (north-central Kansas), with about a 40 percent increase,” said Prendergast. “But that was offset by a 50 percent decrease in the southern high plains (southwest Kansas). We had those big snows down there that probably caused some adult mortality.”
Even with the survey numbers cut in half, Prendergast said the southwest quail whistle counts were the top in Kansas. It’s possible those losses of adult western birds could be made up for, thanks to this spring’s wet weather.
“We’ve seen some areas change as much as 200 to 300 percent from spring to fall with good production,” said Prendergast, “and there are some excellent conditions out there. We’ll have to wait and see.” Spring survey numbers in the eastern one-third of Kansas were above the survey’s long-term average, but it’s possible too much rain may have hurt quail nesting success.
Overall, the biologist is optimistic about the possibilities for this fall.
“I’ve heard from a few farmers who maybe haven’t seen a lot of pheasants yet, but several have commented on the large numbers of (young) quail they’re seeing during harvest,” said Prendergast. “Quail should continue to look pretty good throughout the region. Some other states, like Texas and Oklahoma, had some of the highest survey numbers they’ve ever recorded, and they began their surveys (years before) ours.”
Lesser prairie chicken numbers improved
Spring lesser prairie chicken numbers were 34 percent above 2016 levels, according to a press release from the Western Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies. Their annual spring surveys across all five states with the birds are done from the air. This years survey happened before the late April blizzards that left much of the lesser prairie chicken range under deep snows that could have killed some birds.
This year’s tally of 33,269 birds is a noticeable jump over last years 24,648 birds. The press release states year to year fluctuations are expected, and the group’s goal is to maintain long-term growth. Range-wide numbers have been below 20,000 birds in the past. All three major habitat regions of western and south-central Kansas showed increases over 2016, but densities are still low in many areas, especially southwest Kansas.