Struggling Kansas Wildlife

By MICHAEL PEARCE, The Wichita  Eagle

                 Updated 8:44 am, Thursday, February 28, 2013

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TOPEKA,  Kan. (AP) — Robert  Penner‘s rural Ellinwood bird feeders have been busy for the past 10 days.  The normal crowd of scarlet-colored cardinals, lemony goldfinches, bouncy juncos  and other regulars has kept him entertained.

But  the building numbers of meadowlarks, tree sparrows, pheasants, quail and  red-winged blackbirds have him concerned.

“Those  are stuff that don’t normally come to feeders,” said Penner, Nature Conservancy  of Kansas avian program manager. “That’s an indicator they’re really struggling  to find food. There’s just not much out there with all of this snow.”

Actually  there wasn’t much food or cover even before the two snowstorms that left 15 to  20 inches of snow over a wide swatch of Kansas, The Wichita Eagle reported ( ).

Never  easy on wildlife, these deep snows come after two years of extreme drought that  had already left the landscape lacking food for wildlife, said Jim  Pitman, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism small game  biologist. Pre-storm cover was already barely thick enough to offer protection  from predators and the elements.

In  the long run, the moisture could help rebuild habitat lost to  the drought.

But  for now, the one-two punch of poor habitat and the smothering snow doesn’t bode  well for many animals, Pitman said, and could be especially deadly for some  prairie birds.

Many  prairie species have few birds to spare.

Penner  said grassland bird populations on Nature Conservancy properties have  “plummeted” since the drought began.

“We  had eggs just getting fried in the nests because of the high temperatures, and  then the young ones that hatched had no places to hide,” he said. “We’ve had  almost no (reproduction) for two years. Populations were already  dramatically reduced.”

Pitman  agreed, saying Kansas’ pheasant population going into last fall’s season was  probably the lowest in decades because of poor reproduction.

That  resulted in a multi-million-dollar bite from the rural economy as sportsmen  didn’t spend money on their annual quest for long-tailed  rooster pheasants.

He  fears hawks, coyotes and owls could further reduce a pheasant population that  has few places to hide in the snow.

Bobwhite  quail, which are generally more drought tolerant and have had decent populations  the past few years, also could struggle to find food because of their  small size.

Some  habitat was lost after nearly 500,000 acres of Conservation Reserve Program  grasses, places where wildlife have found shelter and food in past winters, was  cut for hay or grazed by cattle last summer.

The  federal government makes payments to farmers to grow native grasses instead of  crops to reduce crop surpluses, combat erosion and provide good  wildlife habitat.

It’s  one of the few times in the program’s 27-year history that haying and grazing  have been allowed to help reduce the stress on Kansas livestock owners.

Ron  Klataske, Audubon of Kansas director, said the loss of CRP grasses “is going to  have a possibly dramatic impact on the survival of many  wildlife species.”

He  predicted the missing habitat could lead to wildlife losses that could, if  conditions don’t improve, take years or decades to recover.

Penner  said another problem is that many birds also are being killed on  Kansas highways.

There,  thousands of birds have congregated on the cleared shoulders of roads to feed in  areas opened by plows or chemicals.

“Coming  back from church Sunday we were braking almost constantly trying to avoid  birds,” he said. “They’re coming in from where they usually feed in the fields,  sometimes in flocks of hundreds. They’re not used to being around vehicles so a  lot are getting killed.”

As  well as pheasants and meadowlarks, high numbers of red-winged blackbirds,  longspurs, robins and horned larks have recently been seen dead on  Kansas roads.

But  as bleak as conditions have been in some areas, biologists say they could have  been worse.

Pitman  was thankful temperatures haven’t been brutally cold, which requires wildlife to  need more food to survive.

A  thick layer of ice, such as from freezing rain or prolonged cold after  significant melting, can make scratching out food nearly impossible.

In  the past, such icing or rapidly building snow drifts also have entombed roosting  ground birds and lead to widespread die-offs.

Though  hardly balmy, the long-term forecast seems to have enough sunshine,  above-freezing temperatures and wind to help expose some feeding areas and cover  within a few days.

For  the wildlife that survives the deep snows, the sooner they can get to food and  shelter the better, so they can rebuild their bodies.

Pitman  and Penner said birds still weak at the start of spring nestings usually produce  fewer eggs and young. Klataske is concerned about species soon  migrating northward.

“It  takes a lot of energy to get hundreds, if not thousands of miles,” he said.  “They can’t just jump on a plane or train.”

But  in the long run, the snows in which many birds perished, could be a God-send for  their species because of the moisture.

Before  the storms, Penner said reproduction for many species of ground-nesting birds  looked bleak this spring because of a near complete absence of residual cover.  “Hopefully this moisture will soak in, and we’ll get some good rain and some  green grass growing this spring,” he said.

Pitman  agreed, saying many species of wildlife need good conditions for reproduction  this year.

“The  long-term benefits probably far outweigh the current impact with mortalities,”  he said. “We have to have some moisture and early growth if we want to turn  (low

Read more:

Photo: AP

Two men help push a car down a snow-covered street Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013, in St. Louis.

About narhvalur

Environmentalist, Animal Lover, Birder,Equastrian
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