Winging It For the Birds

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The science behind upland bird wing surveys, and why they’re needed.

Story and Photos by Rachel Bush

About a week before upland bird season kicked off, a trip to my mailbox yielded a large manilla envelope. The return address was our state wildlife agency. I was not expecting a package since I had already received my tags for the season.

But as I was opening the envelope on the short walk back to my house, a smile spread across my face as I realized the large manilla envelope contained...more envelopes! In fact, the package contained several large and medium-sized manilla envelopes.

Female Head Feathers

Now, envelopes may seem like an odd thing to get excited about, I know. But what that envelope of envelopes meant was that I had been selected to submit my upland bird wings for the season back to the game and fish department.

The letter that accompanied the envelopes indicated that I was either selected randomly or that I had indicated success hunting upland game on a small game survey sent out by the department this past winter. As I contemplated my new collection of envelopes, I vaguely remember filling out a survey long after the season closed, doing my best to remember days hunted and birds harvested.

Male Head Feathers

Back to the delighted part. While I am a hunter who spends an ample amount of time afield, I am also a biologist. And as a biologist, I know the importance of both the data collected from those mailed or emailed surveys and the more intensive wing collection surveys.

It is equal parts hunter and biologist that gets me excited, although I think “honored” is a better term, because I am indeed honored to help do my part in the management of our upland game species. There’s nothing I enjoy more than watching my favorite upland bird species each spring, as males vie for females, and each fall, as a flurry of feathers erupts from the grass at my feet.

Tail

However, if you are not a biologist, you may not fully understand the importance of wing surveys and how managers use them to track the population. Here’s why our participation in wing surveys is so important...

The wings, tail feathers, and in some cases such as sharp-tailed grouse, the head feathers, help biologists determine the age and sex of the species you harvested. The data that are collected are then used to determine the age ratios of a population.

Wing

More young birds harvested means it was a good year for production. However, if mostly adults are harvested, biologists know that production was down.

With enough wing samples from across the state — and knowing where they came from — biologists begin to build a picture of areas that did well — production-wise — versus other parts of the state that may not have.

Wing2

This data, combined with data from roadside summer brood counts, give managers a picture into how bird populations are doing across a state. By looking at wing feathers, biologists can determine when, approximately, birds hatched. This is valuable information to have when you are an agency that makes management recommendations for activities that may affect nesting habitat, such as haying dates.

Female Head

I have heard rumblings from some hunters as to why they don’t like to participate in harvest surveys, but as upland enthusiasts who look toward the days of fall behind bird dogs, we can easily do our part to help wildlife managers have the information they need to make informed decisions.

Tail2

Whether it is a mailed in envelope, or a collection site at your favorite parking spot, two minutes — to clip a wing, pull some feathers, seal an envelope, or to complete a mailed questionnaire from your state game and fish or wildlife agency — is all it takes to help ensure the species we enjoy pursuing each fall are managed for the future.

Happy Hunting!


Rachel Bush is Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever’s Private Lands Conservation Programs Manager