The fall of 2018 is a good one to have behind us from an upland hunting perspective in southern Alberta – it was simply – tough out there. Populations of upland birds were down significantly across the board. Alberta Conservation Association surveys revealed some areas were down as high as 85% in Hungarian partridge.
There were all kinds of stories of no birds at all where there were dozens in prior years. Farmers that were feeding several hundred roosters this past March up on the Red Deer – hardly seen a brood come June. Same stories on the Milk River Ridge – same on the eastern slope of the Cypress Hills. Lots of birds last winter and they seemed to make it through to April – then there was nothing. What happened – where did they go?
As per normal in nature there may not be only one smoking gun. Some say – it is as simple as – we had the worst winter in over 3 decades. Folks, may be able to point at some other years with more snow and/or more cold weather, however, I would bet that not many could point to a longer winter with snow that covered the prairie for a longer period than last winter. It started in early November and there was still a foot of snow in late April across most of southern Alberta. It really was the winter that never ended.
The length and severity of the winter greatly weakened the birds as they had very little energy reserves left for defending themselves, breeding and successfully raising a brood. Those that did muster the energy to breed no doubt had smaller clutches of eggs, which results in smaller broods. Scientists will point at this lack of recruitment as being one of the major drivers in the population decline.
Timing is everything and the delayed spring was not good for upland gamebird production. The raptors were migrating through while the snow still covered the prairies and there was hardly any habitat that was available for thermal cover. The migration occurred at the same time as when the Huns broke up into pairs. Now the young and weak birds were fully exposed on a big white backdrop. To boot the number of snowy owls that wintered on the Alberta prairies was exceptional, in large part due to the high numbers of prey in the form of upland gamebirds that existed across the south for the last few years.
Then came a quick melt and with it – overland flooding. The county of Taber and others were in a state of emergency with fields flooded throughout the south – limiting pair space and nesting space for breeding upland birds. Ironically, the county had recently “cleaned” all of their ditch infrastructure, which certainly contributed to the amount and length of surface water on the landscape. Healthy vibrant stands of vegetation is best for absorption and moisture management in ditches.
Overland flooding was followed by one of the driest May and June’s in years. Some wonder if there was enough humidity in the ground for the nests of upland birds to be successful. Which one of these factors wreaked the most havoc on our upland population last year may never be known – as mentioned in the beginning – maybe it was simply a result of the worst winter in over 3 decades.