Steve Lekwa: Thoughts on upcoming nesting season

Steve Lekwa, Naturally Speaking
Special to the Ames Tribune

February’s deep cold was no doubt stressful for many of our wild neighbors. More than a week of unseasonably warm weather came right afterward and then another cold snap followed this week that may have introduced its own stresses.

Here in the midlands, far from the tempering influence of large bodies of water, such extremes are to be expected, though. Our wildlife may suffer, but they have seen it all before. Given adequate habitat, they can survive and even prosper.

Pheasants, where they still exist, spend the winter in flocks. It doesn’t seem so long ago that flocks of several dozen birds might be seen in fields scratching through the snow for a meal around dawn and again around sunset. Flocks tend to be much smaller these days unless they’re lucky enough to live in one of the few larger blocks of habitat that remain.

Extreme winter weather conditions probably cut their numbers a bit. Predation and last fall’s hunting (a form or predation) removed some birds, as well. Longer days are telling surviving roosters that it’s time to split up the flock and start staking out territories to defend. The roosters they hung out with all winter are now seen as rivals instead of buddies. Hens are busy laying on fat to prepare themselves for the nesting season. Egg laying and incubation will be far more stressful on their bodies than winter.

A ring-neck pheasant rooster walks through a stubble field near Cascade, Mont.

Pheasants have phenomenal reproductive potential despite all the stresses that life in the wild places on them. An article in the most recent Pheasants Forever magazine shared that hen mortality often ranges from 60-80% each year. Very few live beyond their first year, and a 3-year-old wild pheasant would be ancient.

A hen might incubate a dozen eggs in a normal first nest attempt of the season. If the pheasant population is low, she may lay more eggs. A successful nest will depend upon sufficient habitat to hide her from predators, and more than a month of non-threatening weather that she’ll need to lay and incubate those eggs.

A severe storm anywhere from nest initiation until the young are well feathered can wipe out that nest attempt. A calm spell like that is a tall order in springtime Iowa. I once flushed a hen from of a nest at Doolittle Prairie where she was sitting on 21 eggs. The eggs all appeared to have hatched successfully a week later.

Hatching large first clutches of eggs is key to rebuilding low pheasant populations. It’s quite likely, however, that a hen’s first clutch of eggs will be lost to a storm, a predator or a mower. She’ll try to nest again if she survives. Her body won’t be able to produce so many eggs for the second attempt. She may lose that one, too, and will try yet again with even fewer eggs well into July or even early August if necessary. She won’t recycle into laying mode again once she’s hatched some chicks. The later the hatch, the less likely it is that those chicks will be mature enough to survive the next winter’s first storm.

Waterfowl and some songbirds nest only once per season and lay fewer eggs per year than a pheasant. With their lower reproductive potential, a nest lost to predation, weather or to cowbird parasitism is a much bigger deal. Their only hope for reproduction is for better luck next year.

While a pheasant may live only a year or two, many songbirds are capable of living several years. Waterfowl may live even longer. Their longer life spans give them more chances to reproduce. Downward pressure on wildlife populations from predation, disease and weather extremes has always been, and will always be factors.

The number of successfully raised young required to maintain or increase a population varies by species. What doesn’t vary is that all wildlife must have good habitat to survive and reproduce. Habitat is also the factor over which humans have the most influence.

Steve Lekwa, former director of Story County Conservation.

Steve Lekwa is the former director of Story County Conservation. Contact him at 4lekwas@midiowa.net.