December 19, 2011
Don’t Blame Predators For the Lack of Birds
by Phil Bourjaily
Usually, I post about hunting and shooting things with a shotgun, but in order to do that, I need birds to shoot at and those are in short supply in Iowa’s uplands* these days. So instead I will vent. One of my many frustrations with our lack of birds is listening to people--often people who spend a lot of time outdoors and should know better--blame predators alone for our lack of birds. I have heard all the following and more this season:
There are more birds south of the interstate ‘cause the guys down there do a better job of killing coyotes.
All these bald eagles along the river are eating the pheasants.
I saw a mountain lion the other day. I bet they eat pheasants.
We walked miles of good cover and never saw a pheasant but there’s a hawk in every tree.
And so on. But, we had predators 10-15 years ago and we were covered with pheasants. There’s no denying predators eat some birds, but a much bigger factor in our pheasant decline lies under our boots. Those “miles of good cover” people talk about? They have gotten old. It’ s not the predators. It’s the grass. Even where we still have pheasant cover, a lot of it has lost its benefit for wildlife.
Many of our set-aside fields in Iowa are planted in brome grass, pictured above. For the first few years of a stand of brome’s life, it supports birds. As brome grows older, it gets thicker, becoming difficult for baby pheasants to move around in, crowding out many seed-bearing plants that provide food for chicks. It is also so short as to make worthless winter cover if any snow falls at all. Pheasants can neither reproduce in brome grass nor winter in it, and so, fields of formerly great cover become pheasant deserts. This is why hunters can walk miles of grass where they used to shoot lots of birds and see nothing at all and then, since it looks more or less the same, they blame predators.
Explaining this to people who want to believe other animals are eating all the pheasants is very frustrating, so I thought I’d take a shot at it here. And, there is some good news: my friends at Pheasants Forever tell me that any new or renewed CRP acres will have to be planted in more diverse native grasses and forbs that should have much more benefit for wildlife. Between that and a break in the weather, perhaps our birds can start to come back. Even so, Iowa will never be what it was a few years ago.
*Iowa’s annual pheasant harvest, tops in the nation just a few years ago at a million birds plus, has fallen to under 200,000 after five harsh, snowy winters and wet springs in a row and the loss of thousands of acres of habitat cleared to make room for $6/bushel corn. Our quail? Even worse. We used to have ruffed grouse, too, before our timbers got too old, but that’s a rant for another time.