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Note to Editors: A chart illustrating the Kansas Rural Mail Carriers’ Survey of Pheasant Populations from the 1960s to 2003 can be accessed at http://www.ksre.ksu.edu/news/sty/2003/KSpheasant.pdf.  In addition, photos are available at the NRCS Web site at http://photogallery.nrcs.usda.gov/Index.asp and click on “Wildlife.”

Released: October 21, 2003

Upland Game Birds Becoming a Kansas Resource in Trouble?

MANHATTAN, Kan. – Kansas’ game birds are back – kind of. That’s important news in a state that many experts consider one of the world’s prime spots for watching or hunting bobwhite quail, greater and lesser prairie chickens (two types of grouse), and ring-necked pheasants.

But the experts themselves are being cautious. Yes, bird numbers seem to have recovered from the drastic drops driven by recent years’ poorly timed bad weather. Compared to their numbers 20 or 30 years ago, however, Kansas’ game bird populations have shrunk like Hollywood’s definition of “thin.”

“Something’s changed. Or perhaps all kinds of little things have changed,” said Charles Lee, wildlife specialist with Kansas State University Research and Extension. “Whatever the cause, the result for game birds has been slow and insidious, and it’s obviously been habitat-related. In fact, lack of quality habitat is why our remaining birds were so vulnerable to the recent weather extremes.”

Good habitat not only provides food and moisture, he said, but also increases birds’ odds for escaping from predators and for surviving severe winter storms, pounding hail and hot summers.

Upland game birds’ long-term population decline in Kansas is a concern in the nation’s hunting and birding communities. But it’s also a concern throughout their remaining territory – with some states suffering even greater bird population declines, said Chuck Otte, Geary County Extension agent and Kansas Ornithological Society spokesperson. The concern has fueled an array of theories and explanations.

“The weirdest is probably the rumor that the wild turkeys reintroduced into Kansas have become vicious quail-consuming carnivores – perhaps because their numbers increased as the quail numbers went down,” Otte said. “Well, turkeys don’t eat quail eggs, much less the quail themselves. The turkeys have simply been benefitting from changes in their ecosystem, while the quail have not – just as some grassland-nesting songbirds have not.”

Lee finds merit, but no easy answers in a few other “coffee-shop” theories, as well as a growing body of scientific findings. He suspects the problem has evolved from many human endeavors.

For example, each highway paves over thousands of acres of potential wildlife habitat. Mowing its shoulders reduces fire risks and increases drivers’ line-of-sight. But mowing also removes huge expanses of upland game bird habitat and makes the view less scenic, he said.

Building landscaped suburban homes and businesses does the same, acre by acre, year by year.

Since the 1980s, economics has forced structural changes in farming and ranching, too. And, as farm size has gone up, the number of hedge and weedy fence rows has gone down. Old farmsteads surrounded by wildlife-fostering shrubs, weeds and vines are being cleared for ease in farming.

“We don’t have as much diversity in crops, either. People can’t make a living now from 40 acres of this and 40 acres of that. But a lack of crop diversity also reduces the quality of game bird habitat,” Lee said. “We’re even losing our expanses of native prairie grasses. Ranchers are plowing, fertilizing, and planting fescue or brome – which cattle do well on, but doesn’t have much value for game birds.”

The federal government’s Conservation Reserve Program could have had a greater positive effect, he said. For farmers, however, the CRP payments haven’t made actively managing their “retired” land very cost-effective. So, in many cases, the land’s bird-supporting grass and shrub growth has become too dense and rank. In some areas, wild trees are beginning to take over.

“Upland game birds are just what their name says – not forest birds,” Lee said. “I’ve seen prairie chickens briefly sit in a tree, but they never roost there. They’ll give trees a wide berth if they can.”

Large-farm management itself has made inroads on bird habitat, the specialist said. As might be expected, broad-scale weed and insect pest controls have had an impact, as has larger farm machinery.

“Annual burning of rangelands helps reduce tree spread, stimulates grass tillering, and improves stocker cattle performance, but it’s also the worst for wildlife. I’d certainly like to see fewer trees out there, particularly mature trees. But burning less acreage each year – while making sure everything gets burned every three to four years – would be much more beneficial for the birds. The location of the birds’ food and cover would change occasionally, but they’d always have some available,” Lee said.

Unburned and/or overgrazed grassland creates its own problems, he said. Over time, it provides less food and cover for upland game birds. It’s an open invitation for tree seedlings. And, on overgrazed land, even burning may not halt a tree invasion, because sparse grassy vegetation can’t produce a very hot fire.

Joshua Pease, who heads the Conservation Tree Planting Program for the Kansas Forest Service, recommends controlling eastern redcedars in pastures by burning before the trees exceed 3 years old.

“If you don’t stop them by that age, burning probably won’t get the job done,” Pease said. “Windbreaks are very important in Kansas for erosion control and for moderating our environment’s extremes. To keep those benefits, however, as well as the benefit of having top-quality rangeland, we need to limit our windbreak trees to windbreaks.”

In an ideal world, Lee also would want more shrub plantings; some unused native rangeland areas; and suburban landscaping that shares space with wildlife, rather than removes habitat.

“We’ve still got a unique resource. I’d like to see us all work to keep it, rather than wait for some definitive answer to ‘Where have all the birds gone?’” he said.

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K-State Research and Extension is a short name for the Kansas State University Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service, a program designed to generate and distribute useful knowledge for the well-being of Kansans. Supported by county, state, federal and private funds, the program has county Extension offices, experiment fields, area Extension offices and regional research centers statewide. Its headquarters is on the K-State campus, Manhattan.

Story by:
Kathleen Ward, Communications Specialist
kward@oznet.ksu.edu
K-State Research& Extension News

Additional Information:
Charlie Lee is at 785-532-5734