The first week of upland gamebird hunting in Maine has just concluded. An impressive throng of hunters took to the woods last weekend. This came as a concern to some birds, and a relief to others.
Ruffed grouse have the most to be worried about. Around half a million are harvested in Maine each year. Hunters take a fair number of American woodcocks, and there is a pheasant-hunting season in York and Cumberland counties where about 2,000 birds are stocked.
Some birds can relax for a while. I am referring to the domesticated birds that many hunters use to train their dogs. These birds have spent a good part of the pre-season being pointed at, sniffed at and even picked up gently. Even though they are raised in captivity and get accustomed to the attention pretty quickly, some do wander off, if given the chance.
Chukars seem to be the most popular escapees. Alert readers send me several photos a year, wondering what the heck this exotic-looking bird is doing in their backyards. Chukars are native to Eurasia. It’s the national bird of Iraq and Pakistan. Domesticated chukars are quite docile and tame. Dog-training demonstrations at the Eastern Maine Sportsman’s Show in March often feature chukars. It’s a giggle to see them picked up in the mouths of retrievers, then released, nonchalant and unruffled.
Chukars can survive the cold of a Maine winter. They have established breeding populations in the high desert plains of the Rockies, where weather is harsh, vegetation is sparse and predators are easy to see coming. Chukars are masters at scampering away, bounding uphill over rocks and sand. Maine’s thick vegetation is just about the opposite of what they need.
The northern bobwhite is another quail species that is often raised in captivity, either for training dogs or for release onto private hunting reserves. Although they were native to Maine decades ago, they disappeared along with the farm fields, scrubby brush and pine woods that used to sustain them. Nowadays the bobwhite range barely reaches Massachusetts, and the overall population in the eastern United States has declined by 85 percent in the last 50 years. You can be sure that any bobwhite seen in Maine now was raised in somebody’s backyard.
Earlier this summer, an alert reader sent me a photo of a bizarre-looking bird. It was plump, the size of a mixing bowl, and had a comma-shaped crest sticking out of the top of its head. I was astounded to see that it was a Gambel’s quail. That’s a southwestern bird of the Sonoran, Mohave and Chihuahuan deserts. It doesn’t migrate, and there is no way that it wandered here accidentally. Up until that point, I did not know that hunters raised this bird for dog-training. I do now.
Unlike the various quails, ring-necked pheasants can survive a Maine winter, and some do. There are established populations in the state, though it’s likely that they persist only because fresh birds are released or escape to join them. They seem to do better on islands with limited predation. Monhegan has a small population. It’s a backyard bird on Grand Manan Island in New Brunswick. They do well in Nova Scotia.
The pheasant is an Old World species, brought to the New World because of its popularity as a gamebird. They were first released in Maine 90 years ago. They do best in old farm fields, especially along weedy edges and hedgerows. As these habitats disappear, so do the pheasants. They mostly continue in central Maine where agriculture persists, and in southern Maine where they are stocked for hunting. Pheasants are well-established in parts of the Midwest, especially in the Dakotas. Deep snow in Maine can cover their food supply, but snow in the prairies tends to blow off, exposing the grassy seeds pheasants rely on.
As for the ruffed grouse, don’t worry about them. Maine’s habitat is as close to perfect as it gets. Forest management creates a lot of young woodlots, with a protective understory and plenty of food. Even though a quarter of the population is reduced by hunting, predation and natural causes each fall and winter, their numbers bounce right back in the spring. Grouse follow the same strategy that sustains many prey species. They make a lot of babies. While doing some bird surveys in July, I chanced upon innumerable families, all thriving.
I pity Pennsylvania, where grouse numbers are plummeting. It’s their official state bird.