Inside the Outdoors: Wetness may be a mixed blessing for 2018 gamebird outlook
Spring-to-early summer is time of critical importance to the successful reproduction of most wildlife in our northern world. From birds to bugs, fish to fowl, now is when it must happen for most species. Several of these are of more than casual interest to those of us who hunt. These species, like nongame wildlife, are at a seasonal crossroads that will determine whether their numbers will be up or down as the time of rearing ends and young should be maturing into adults.
Weather at this time of year is a concern for humans, whether you're a farmer hoping for rainfall adequate to raise crops, or a homeowner having to deal with the aftermath of a storm. For pheasants, ducks and grouse — all key gamebirds in Minnesota — the weather at this time of year is literally a matter of life and death. The dimensions of weather that are most important are rainfall and temperature, often in combination.
Conditions in Minnesota and neighboring North Dakota provide a contrast that illustrates the potential consequences of too much or too little. In this case, rainfall. It's too early for final conclusions to be drawn, but history and some simple facts of biology give us clues to what can be expected. Those in the wildlife management community whose job it is to watch such things are already beginning to opine possible outcomes, some expressing real concern.
It's clearly been a wet spring and early summer over most of Minnesota. Wetness at this time of year, when young game birds are fledging — especially young grouse and pheasants — is bad news. Even young waterfowl — ducklings and goslings — can be at risk, though eventually they will have well-oiled feathers that shed water and make them buoyant.
Beyond the obvious and dramatic killers of young game birds, like hawks and foxes, the loss of body heat is the great enemy of very young game birds. When grouse or pheasant chicks' feathers become water-soaked — especially in cool temperatures — they rapidly lose body heat, which can easily be fatal. It's hypothermia, just as it would be for a human, though with our kind we typically associate it with immersion in cold water, or exposure in winter.
As if to underscore the fears raised by this year's weather pattern, comments from within the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources — as reported in the outdoors media — reveal that fear is on their minds, too. These reports come mainly from Minnesota's primary pheasant range in the Southwest. Optimistic as biologists try to be when the outlook is grim, they're hoping for a reproductive "Plan B." That is, they're hoping that some hens are nesting later than normal, and that their chicks will stand a better chance of survival under drier conditions; if these conditions materialize.
Newborn ruffed grouse chicks, too, are well-known to be susceptible to wet weather. Especially so when the accompanying temperatures are cool, or cold. Fortunately, this spring's weather extremes were of the wet rather than the cold variety, so fledging ruffed grouse may have that in their favor. But in a more perfect world, biologists would have "ordered up" a drier spring for them, too.
"Like water off a duck's back" is a familiar human expression that describes the ability to weather criticism, or perhaps to ignore a warning. Its meaning is rooted in the fact that water does roll off a duck's back, thanks to oil from a body gland that a duck uses to preen and coat its feathers. (The feathers that surround this oil gland are so thoroughly coated that fishermen use them to tie fishing flies that can be nearly unsinkable.)
But when you're a just-born ball of fuzzy down, a duckling or gosling can be vulnerable to ill-timed or overabundant rain, too. Duck or goose down does not shed water, and young ducklings and goslings do not have what are known as adult contour feathers, which provide insulation against loss of body heat. But time may be more on the side of young waterfowl than young upland game birds. Research in Canada, as reported by Ducks Unlimited, indicates that once young waterfowl reach just seven days of age, their chances of survival become significantly greater.
Water presents other threats to waterfowl, too. Some ducks, redheads for example, build their nests in dense cattails or bulrushes, not far above the water line. Heavy rains that raise water levels can flood their nests. Fortunately, ducks are prolific re-nesters if an initial nesting attempt fails, so the principle of "try, try again" is in their favor.
In the grand scheme of things, waterfowl are better off with more water than less. Ample water is needed to fill wetlands to kick off the breeding season when they arrive from southern climes, and to keep seasonal or temporary wetlands from going prematurely dry before the young can hatch and can be led by their parent to a permanent wetland or lake.
Just over our border to the west, however, in North Dakota, these temporary and seasonal wetlands are down by a third from 2017. This marks the second straight year with fewer water-filled wetlands. These less-than-permanent waters provide important nesting opportunities, even though they typically dry out later in the year, after young ducks and geese are born. The prognosis in North Dakota is for a second year of reduced duck production.
Better to have too much water than too little, it would seem.