Drought-starved habitat, snow hit Kansas wildlife hard

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 have 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.

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 populations) around.”