For Release February 11, 2003

Where Have All The Birds Gone, part 2?

by Chuck Otte, Geary County Extension Agent

A couple of weeks ago I talked about the presence or absence of birds at backyard feeders. I promised a follow up to that discussion, talking about game birds such as quail (Northern Bobwhite), pheasants (Ring-necked Pheasant) and prairie-chickens (Greater Prairie-chicken). Keep in mind that quail and prairie-chickens are native birds, the Ring-necked Pheasant is not. It was introduced from Asia in the first half of the 20th century as a game bird.

Whenever a population decline is noted in a species, one must first determine if it is part of a short term cycle (coyotes and rabbits are a classic example), or evidence of a longer term situation outside of a natural predator/prey cycle. There have been extensive studies of the decline of the three species mentioned. There have been a lot of speculation and rumors about the problems. But the truth is that there is no simple reason, and there are a lot of contributing factors.

Letís put to rest some of the wildest rumors that the decline, especially of the quail, is due to hawks or turkeys. Repeated studies in many states, not just Kansas, have shown that turkeys and hawks are not the culprit. Turkeyís may occasionally trample a nest, but they do not regularly eat eggs or young birds. Hawks may occasionally take a pheasant, quail or prairie-chicken, but they are not an appreciable cause of population declines.

We do have to lay some of the blame on the weather. Weather extremes, at critical nesting and brooding times, are devastating. Heat, cold, excessive rain, excessive dry or even a big hail storm can all be very detrimental. Extreme spring and early summer weather has certainly been abundant the past few years. So thereís part of the reason.

But we seem to keep coming back to the biggest reason for population declines and that is manís impact on the ecosystems these birds live in. Whether itís these game birds, whether itís grassland nesting songbirds, songbirds using large tracts of forest or any species in any ecosystem, when humans start altering the landscape, natural creatures that use those landscapes will react positively or negatively.

The alterations of the Flint Hills landscape has been beneficial to the Wild Turkey race that was introduced to Kansas, but detrimental to Northern Bobwhite. One species is not affecting the other, both are reacting to the same change in the ecosystem. Look at the changes. Large tracts of pasture and rural land are broken into smaller tracts for rural housing. Some pastures are being allowed to grow into cedar forests, while other pastures are burned annually and occasionally overgrazed. Prairie-chickens will avoid any tall man made object whether itís a house, a power line pole , a cell phone tower or a wind turbine. Most research shows an avoidance range of 500 to 1000 feet from these structures by prairie-chickens.

Modern farming is using better herbicides that leave fewer weeds in the off season. These weeds use up moisture, but they also produce lots of valuable food for wildlife. We also seem to be back into a period of bulldozing out hedge rows. These hedge rows provided a lot of cover, for quail especially. Populations of many species are dropping, sometimes drastically. And while weather contributes, the biggest culprit is often staring back at us in the mirror. What can be done? Many things, but again - thatíll have to be in a future column!


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