WHAT UPLAND BIRDS EAT THROUGHOUT THE YEAR

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By Ethan R. KleekampOpening photo courtesy Missouri Department of Conservation

I sometimes wonder how much of our upland bird obsession is rooted in sympathy.  Not just for their man-made plight, but because most tend to live such short and invariably tragic lives. When the whole world seems set against you, how could you ever know a moment’s peace?

The duality of trying to save something you love while also cherishing the sport and table fare they provide can be a difficult thing to explain to strangers. Thus, having a well-rehearsed lesson in ecology is a must.

Indeed, only fifty percent of bobwhite and ring-neck chicks will manage to survive their first two weeks of life. Moreover, those that do, will more than likely succumb to the combined effects of weather, predation, and disease before they’ve completed their first full trip around the sun. Fortunately, these losses are offset by tremendous reproductive potential – but still, if you’re like me, you desperately search for ways to turn the odds in their favor.

Picture2resize.jpg Photo Courtesy Missouri Department of Conservation

Though our management philosophy has changed over the years, the general strategy has remained the same. By helping increase the efficiency with which birds can meet their caloric and nutritional needs during the most critical times of the year we can limit their exposure to predators and the elements. While food itself is rarely a limiting factor for upland birds, this timely availability of specific food resources and how well they are interspersed with protective cover can be highly influential. A short walk from our bedrooms to a fully stocked fridge keeps us all happier and healthier than routinely fighting traffic across town to grab crappy takeout.

The menu will vary across species and ranges, but the formula is the same: protein for building muscle and other tissue, and fats and carbohydrates for energy and body maintenance.

Here in southwest Missouri, we consider brood rearing to be the most critical season and typically the most limiting habitat type. Bobwhite chicks hatch weighing a diminutive ¼ ounce, but like all Galliforms, they are precocial, meaning they kick loose the eggshells already clad with downy feathers and well-developed eyesight. Though ready to roam, being flightless and unable to thermoregulate amounts to an incredibly perilous first couple of weeks. The already slim odds of survival only diminish if muscle and plumage development are delayed due to poor nutrition.

For this, protein is the only solution. Fortunately, diverse plant communities are teeming with the arthropods and other invertebrates like caterpillars, beetles, spiders, and crickets that comprise the chicks’ sole diet during their first six to eight weeks of life. Simply put, bugs grow feathers, hence our organizational commitment to all this pollinator habitat!

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Those lucky enough to slip through their first growing season and evade depredation in the fall will arrive at their next major challenge: winter. In other parts of the bobwhite range, and certainly for species with more northerly distributions, winter survival is often considered the biggest factor regulating population growth and sustainability.

Simply maintaining body temperature during these darker months can tie up 60 to 70 percent of a bird’s energy budget, and wind and precipitation only inflate that number. During this time, birds can employ various behavioral changes, but persistently adverse conditions will force them to begin metabolizing their lipid stores, and as a last resort, catabolize muscle mass. As anyone who’s pulled an emaciated pheasant from a snowbank would agree, this is none too pretty.

We’ve known for many years that the energy-dense seeds of our common grain crops like corn and sorghum can provide the fat and carbohydrates needed at this time of year, so naturally, food plots dominated our early management efforts. But just as important are the smooth, hard seeds of ragweed, lespedezas, and various bidens and desmodiums – the pesky little “beggar’s lice and tickseeds” that cling to us and our canines after a day afield.

ragweed.jpg Photo Courtesy of the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative

And the greatest advantage of these cheap alternatives to “planted fuel” is that they proliferate following a little fire, disking, or grazing and attract swarms of insects during the summer and fall before dropping their seeds later in the year.

For the better part of the last two centuries, American agricultural lands could meet these nutritional needs throughout the entire year. Unfortunately, simplified crop rotations and increased reliance on herbicides, pesticides, and nonnative forages have effectively sterilized many of these former strongholds.

Desmodium_Seed_National_Bobwhite_Conservation_Initiative.jpg Photo Courtesy National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative

Thus, we are forced to get strategic with how we plant or otherwise encourage food production for upland birds. Well-placed grain plots and unharvested crop rows can certainly buoy local populations, but you can show real love and support for our pitiable comrades by leaving space for weeds and all the critical insects and seeds they supply.

But rest assured, you don’t have to be a botanist or entomologist to know whether the right food sources are in place on your farm.  Diversity is key – just maximize their choices and let them decide.

Ethan Kleekamp is a PF and QF Farm Bill biologist based in Missouri