Saturday, February 4th, 2023
Saturday, February 4th, 2023

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Scientists concerned with pintail, woodcock numbers

By Tim Eisele Correspondent

Madison — Scientists and researchers who are members of The
Wildlife Society shared information on pintails, woodcock, ruffed
grouse, and wolves during their September conference in Madison.
Much of their discussion focused on the struggling pintail
population.

Pintail populations are about 38 percent below their long-term
average. Karla Guyn, of Ducks Unlimited Canada, said that one of
the most disturbing trends is that relative to other puddle ducks,
pintails have not responded during years of good water. All of the
species decreased during the droughts of the 1980s, but with better
water conditions in the 1990s, other species responded in dramatic
fashion. Pintails showed just a modest increase.

“What’s going on with pintails?” Guyn asked before presenting
information on research in southern Canada prairies.

“Pintails are different in that they are the only species that
nest in sparse cover, including field stubble,” Guyn said. “It is
believed that the pintail decline has come about due to large-scale
conversion of grasslands to croplands, and how that cropland is
utilized.”

As farmers reduce summer fallow, or leave past cropland
unplanted for a growing season, (which has been one of the biggest
changes in Canadian agriculture in the past 25 years), pintails
also have declined, she said. Pintails return to the breeding
grounds in April and the landscape is bare, but the left-over
stubble is attractive for nesting. When stubble was undisturbed, or
fallow, pintail nests had a chance to hatch, but now they are soon
destroyed by mechanical equipment.

Guyn said pintails could catch a break if winter wheat farming
increases – there, pintail nests can be successful. However, as
native prairie goes under the plow and more acres are planted to
soybeans and intense agriculture persists, and if a long-term
drought occurs, there are real concerns for pintail
populations.

Woodcock research

Jed Meunier, master’s student in wildlife ecology at UW-Madison,
conducted a research project on woodcock in Wisconsin, while
similar research was conducted in Michigan and Minnesota. The tiny
migratory bird has shown a population decline for four decades,
generating intense interest.

Woodcock are nocturnal migrants, but they fly at low elevations
and for short distances; they’re known as “hop” migrators.

Wisconsin is in the Central Flyway for woodcock migration, with
birds wintering in Gulf Coast states. Migration normally peaks in
late October or early November, and is weather-dependent.

Meunier captured woodcock using mist nets. He put radio
transmitters on them to track movements of local woodcock. The
study included weather variables, changes in moon phase, earthworm
abundance, and differences in movements by sex of bird.

Meunier was not able to find any difference – when woodcock
departed for southern grounds – by sex or age of the bird. Day
length was especially important, and moon phase also may be
important in determining when woodcock depart.

“In all states, even though there were differences in
temperatures from state to state, woodcock began departing around
the same time,” Meunier said. “Also, when the moon was more than 50
percent full was important in migration, (with birds) departing
around (the time of) a full moon. Considering that they are
low-elevation flyers, it is our guess that moon is a navigational
aid for woodcock migration.”

Meunier found barometric pressure (low pressure), visibility
(clearing skies), and wind direction (shift from the west or
northwest) all influenced migration. Earthworm availability also is
tied to weather and people surmised that worms went deeper into the
soil with cold, but Meunier found no evidence linking worm
availability and migration.

Ruffed grouse research

Bill Giuliano, of the University of Florida, reported on a study
of ruffed grouse in the Appalachian Mountains. Most grouse studies
have been conducted in the Great Lakes states where aspen is the
major species, but the Eastern states do not have a lot of aspen
and do not have the regular 10-year cycles of grouse
populations.

Giuliano studied birds and found that the availability of roads
and understory was important. Early successional habitat, or thick
young vegetation, was best for higher survival.

“If you want to benefit grouse, you should provide habitat
needed by adult females, which includes roads and early
successional habitat, but also habitat for nesting and brood
rearing,” he said.

Ben Jones, wildlife student with the University of Tennessee,
participated in the Appalachian study in North Carolina. He put
radio collars on 276 grouse to study their home range. He concurred
that young forests are important for grouse, but that mature
forests also provide hard mast and buds.

“Young forests are important, but interspersion of habitat is a
key, and we found that shelterwood harvests provided good habitat
afterward,” he said.

State wolf update

Jane Wiedenhoeft, of the Wisconsin DNR, summarized wolf
populations in Wisconsin. The DNR began monitoring wolves in 1979,
estimating there were 25 wolves that year. The agency conducts
winter tracking, radio monitoring, and howl surveys today.

In 1980, the DNR estimated there were three packs in
northwestern Wisconsin and one in north-central Wisconsin.
Populations increased substantially throughout the north by 1995,
and a pack appeared in the central forest of Jackson County that
year.

The DNR estimates the wolf population from observations by DNR
field employees and pilots, volunteer observations, and reports by
citizens. Currently, the state estimates that the minimum number is
about 414 wolves, not including wolves on Indian reservations.

Wolves that are trapped and equipped with radio collars give an
indication of causes of mortality. Currently, 60 percent of
mortality is human caused, and pup survival is about 30
percent.

The National Wildlife Health Center has necropsied 182 wolves
from 1979 and 2003. The cause of death was 35 percent by motor
vehicle, 23 percent were shot, 18 percent died by disease, and 8
percent died because of aggressive behavior from other wolves.

One of the longer movements was a collared wolf from northern
Wisconsin that was killed in Iowa. A wolf collared in the Upper
Peninsula of Michigan was shot in Missouri.

Randy Jurewicz, of the Wisconsin DNR, said wolf management now
is directed by litigation.

Jurewicz has been involved in the state wolf program since he
authored a grant in 1978. Despite increases in mange, heartworm,
shooting incidents, and the fact that the DNR and USDA Wildlife
Services have killed 41 depredating wolves, the population has
increased from 2003 to 2004.

“Once we get permission for lethal control, the population will
probably still increase from the 425 to 450 population now,” he
said. “The ironic part of all of these lawsuits, brought forth by
Defenders of Wildlife and others, groups that are against the sport
harvest of wolves, is that by the time we get authority to control
wolves, the only tool we will be left with is sport hunting. They
may have sealed the fate of wolves, because had we had delisting we
could have controlled the population when it was around 350. Now it
is essentially out of the box and biologically and politically we
will not be able to have just governmental harvest.”

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