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Winter Is For The Birds

By Dennis Newman - Idaho DFG

As the vibrant colors of fall continue to fade, we are reminded that the cold grasp of winter is just around the corner.

For sportsmen, landowners, and conservationists, the imminent onset of winter may conjure up thoughts of the constant struggle of survival wildlife face.

The fight for survival and perpetuation of the species is never more difficult then in the harsh winter months.

Pheasants and other upland game birds may be among the most vulnerable species to the wrath of winter. Upland game bird populations experience a vast array of fluctuation from year to year in part because of the two major factors of winter and spring.

Long, cold, wet springs may lead to high mortality rates in the newly hatched chicks. During the period from hatching to the point the chicks develop their first set of feathers they are very susceptible to the weather. A cold and wet chick usually means a dead chick.

Little can be done to change Mother Nature, but planting high quality nesting cover can help birds produce more chicks to overcome the losses to weather.
For game birds, winter is a time of struggle to find food, escape the weather and evade predators. Planting thermal cover can help birds survive harsh weather, and good escape cover helps them evade predators.

Providing cereal grains, berries, and seeds will help reduce losses from starvation. All of these lead to better hen condition in the spring, which translates to higher nesting success. So in a way, things that help birds survive the winter, also help improve their chances of success in the spring.

The best way to provide cover and food is by planting woody cover, consisting of a mixture of conifers and hardwood shrubs. Conifers provide thermal cover and hardwood shrubs produce food, such as berries, seeds and hips. This gives birds access to food during heavy snowfall, without being exposed to predators. Species such as ponderosa pine, Douglas hawthorn, chokecherry, elderberry, serviceberry, currant and woods rose are examples of plants that are crucial to winter bird habitat in Idaho.

Planting winter food plots benefits upland game birds and numerous other wildlife species. Winter food plots should consist of cereal grains and should be located no more than 200 feet from woody winter cover to let birds get to the food without being overly exposed to predators.

The Idaho Department of Fish and Game's regional habitat biologists can provide technical help with projects to improve habitat on private land to benefit local birds as well as help in finding the money for many projects.

Fish and Game's Habitat Improvement Program offers funding for private land habitat projects that benefit upland game birds and waterfowl throughout the state. For information on the program or ways to improve game bird populations call the Fish and Game Clearwater office at 208-799-5010.

Dennis Newman is a regional habitat biologist in the Clearwater Region.


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