Scott Rall: Rain, rain go away
According to the old Rall family almanac, the weather around here just won’t behave.
After it did rain, it did so in such a fashion that nobody was happy and — in most cases — just plain angry or frustrated. All of the seeding that I completed was not established and many of the grass seeding will need to be replanted. Now I have a better understanding of the cost to replant. Native seed mixes are easily $200 per acre.
I can remember the saying that this weather is only good if you are a duck. With all the rain, even the ducks might very well be in trouble. I visited a 100-acre property that we are going to use to host the members of the Governors’ hunting party on the pheasant opener on the 11th of October and the spot was completely underwater. Even if you are a nesting duck, this is too much of a good thing. Any waterfowl or pheasants that were nesting in this area or others like it have been displaced and the nests destroyed. I bumped a mallard hen off a nest a week ago on one of my wildlife walks and she had nine eggs. The nest was not located in low ground so this nest made it past the big rains and dodged the latest bullet. Many acres of our remaining grasslands in southwest Minnesota are located in these low areas because they are generally too wet to farm, which is why they are still in grassland cover in the first place.
It used to be that a road ditch was a pretty good place to locate a nest for ducks and pheasants, but with all of the ditch mowing and haying taking place before the recommended and, in some cases, regulated August 1 st cutoff, this location is starting to be pretty hit and miss as well. Many road ditches are better mowed and maintained than my front yard.
The only thing that various types of wildlife has going for them when they encounter these bad weather systems is their unrelenting tenacity. A pheasant hen will re-nest more than a few times if her nest is destroyed. They might even try as many as four or five times. Each successive attempt will result in a smaller clutch. Once the eggs hatch, even if the young die the next day, that hen is done for the reproductive season. A hen does not have to be bred by a rooster again in order to pull off a second nesting attempt but many of them are. Roosters are always at the ready.
The other issue when we get rains like this, other than nests being flooded out, is that a pheasant chick is a tender little thing during those first few weeks of life. A three-day old chick that gets soaked with rain might very will die of exposure before a predator can eat them. I read once that a two-day old pheasant chick will die in less than two minutes in a rain with temperatures colder than 43-45 degrees. We were lucky with this go-around in the fact that the temperatures never really got below 50 degrees. This should have helped young pheasants a little in this regard.
This season was really shaping up to be one of the best spring nesting seasons in the past eight or nine years. Every time I think wildlife might just have a great year, the weather jumps in and knocks it flat on its back. It is a combination of winter weather and spring nesting conditions that make or break a successful nesting outcome. A mild winter and a really wet spring amount to about the same outcome as a severe winter and a great spring.
The worse the weather, the more important quality habitat becomes. Wildlife, as I said, is very tenacious.
Given the right habitat there will be a certain percentage of the wildlife that will pull off a successful nest no matter how bad the conditions. Although the percentage might be pretty low, there will be some survivors. In poor habitat, the success rates are even lower and it is this low success rate in marginal habitats that can require many years for populations of ground nesting birds to recover to their customary population status.
We cannot control the weather, but we can have an effect on the quality and amount of habitat on the landscape. Habitat in fewer, larger tracts will raise more game than the same number of acres in multiple, smaller tracts spread out all over. The reason for this is: the predators have a harder time hunting an expansive spot. Running a narrow strip of grass for a fox is easy pickins’ — comparatively speaking — to trying to cover 320 acres all in one place.
All ground nesting birds are in the same boat. A duck nest, pheasant nest and nests of ground nesting song birds are all in danger of having the nests flooded out if they are located in low ground. Other wildlife can do a little better than these ground nesting birds. Deer can move to high ground and I have seen quite a few fawns this spring. They seem to be doing OK. My dad remounted our wood duck boxes onto sturdier posts this spring and their usage is way up. We concluded that the lighter poles swayed just a little when it was windy and the wood ducks and merganser did not like it. After we did the post improvement, 60 percent of our boxes got used in the very first year after the change. Prior to the change, their utilization was only about 25 percent.
Only time will tell when it comes to the success of the first, second or third nesting attempts of our local duck and pheasant populations. What happens from now on will make a big difference as to how good the hunting might be this fall. If everything gets straightened out, many pheasants will re-nest and some birds will make it to adulthood. If it keeps raining and the additional attempts fail as well, then a dog might be pretty lonely in a pheasant field this fall.
I have a saying that, in South Dakota you go pheasant hunting, In Minnesota you most often go hunting for one pheasant. The balance of this spring will determine if you get to hunt one or many birds in the upcoming season in the fall of 2014.