Though forest grouse have predictable cycles, western game bird populations fluctuate based on weather. Western upland game birds are a passion for many hunters and a season would not be complete without one or more trips afield. Upland bird hunts can be combined with a big game trip or planned as a separate adventure, but bird populations can vary widely in any one year depending on the severity of the winter and the timing of rainfall. Populations can double in a single season, but they can drop dramatically just as quickly.
Although predictions, including mine, are based on both biological factors and practical experience, remember that statewide or regional predictions may not apply to a particular habitat.
As we reported back in March (Article 3998), the winter of 2017 was rough across the northern plains. Pheasants were hit hard in the Dakotas during the winter of 2016–2017, and this spring’s drought hurt production even more. Yet some of the very best pheasant operators in this area have groomed their properties to provide maximum overwinter habitat, and the effects on a well-managed property may not be as bad as the regional forecast. My advice is to concentrate on the larger pheasant operations, especially those near Pierre or Chamberlain SD, which care for the wild birds all year and supplement as needed with pen-raised pheasants.
The hard conditions for pheasants extended from the Dakotas into Montana and southern Idaho. In these areas, unmanaged farms probably will have a fraction of the birds they had in the past year or two, and you’ll hunt hard for those late-season survivors.
In Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa, the weather has been more favorable, and the only real changes have been reductions in Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) lands, which could affect local populations.
Prairie Grouse and Gray (Hungarian) Partridge
Both species of prairie grouse (prairie chickens and sharptail) and gray (Hungarian) partridge tend to mirror pheasant numbers in the Great Plains. Prairie chickens and sharptails took it hard in the north but are in better shape in Nebraska and Kansas. Gray partridge are often hunted alongside prairie grouse, and when populations of one are up, so are populations of the other.
Sage grouse are still a species of concern to conservationists, but active management has reversed declines in many areas. The best sage grouse hunting available to nonresidents is in Wyoming and northwestern Nevada, but the seasons are short and the bag limits small. Utah and Idaho also have sage grouse hunting opportunities, but these birds have become something of a collector species. With small daily bag limits (one or two birds), you’ll need to plan in advance for a decent sage grouse hunt.
My favorite places include Parker Mountain in southcentral UT and BLM land north and east of Rawlins, WY. In Nevada, nonresidents are limited to areas in the northwest, and any of these should be good for a limit of birds if you walk far enough.
Chukars are widespread across the West but still may be the most difficult western birds to hunt. The best hunting I’ve ever had for chukar was on the slopes of Mauna Kea in Hawaii (also the very best California quail hunting!), but more traditional areas include eastern Oregon, western Idaho, Nevada and Utah.
Idaho experienced a significant drought this summer and bird numbers will be down there. Helicopter surveys in Nevada point to a down year in the northern part of the state, but bird numbers look good along the east side south of I-80.
Chukar are dependent on water early in the season and are found in steep, rocky habitat wherever there is livestock water or one of the rainfall guzzlers specifically installed for their use. The BLM has maps showing the location of these guzzlers. After the first snow of the season, chukar scatter widely, but you can often find them by cruising the roads along the base of the mountain and stopping and listening for their calls. You can also spot their tracks in the snow with binoculars if the light is right. Personally, I like to know there are birds around before I start to climb a mountain.
This year may well be one of the best for scaled quail in New Mexico. The summer monsoon rains have been well timed and well scattered. Look to the BLM land south and west of Roswell and the grasslands near Alamogordo and Deming for the most habitat. Scaled quail also range into Texas and even southern Colorado but are confined almost exclusively to private land. In Texas, there is some public hunting on Texas Parks & Wildlife Department leases and management areas, including Big Bend Ranch State Park and Black Gap, Elephant Mountain and Matador WMAs. Be sure to check dates, and you must also have a separate annual public hunting license.
The same rains that help scaled quail have been great for Gambel quail, which are up this year across southern New Mexico and Arizona. I personally saw pairs with chicks in mid-May. Although the season opens in Nov., I usually wait until after New Year’s and take a trip to the desert for these birds. Camping that time of year is comfortable, and the quail are active all-day long. Gambel quail are found in canyons and arroyos alongside every mountain in the southern part of either state, but to get the best shooting you need to walk off the roads.
Mearns (Montezuma) Quail
One of the most beautiful of our native birds has to be the Mearns quail, and this year will be a good one for this special bird. Mearns quail literally scratch a living from the oak/grassland habitat on the mountainsides, and their populations are dependent on the summer monsoon rains, which have been generous this year. In the US, these birds can be found in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico, but they can be hunted only in the latter two states. In Arizona, Mearns quail have a later opening date and a smaller bag limit is in force in both states, but the hunt is well worth the effort. The highest concentration of Mearns quail is in the mountains near Sonoita and Patagonia Arizona and a small number of outfitters are based there to cater to visiting hunters. Expect the outfitters to be protective of their spots, as these birds can be overhunted.
For the hunter who travels, bird shooting can extend your hunting opportunities and enrich an experience. If you hunt birds anywhere in the world this year, be sure to file a report with us.