Published January 13, 2013, 12:00 AM

ALWAYS IN SEASON: Three chicken-like species make a birding hat trick

The other day, I had a hat trick, but not at the rink. It happened on the road. I was on my way to Bismarck for the opening of the Legislature, and I saw three species of chicken-like birds.

By: Mike Jacobs, Grand Forks Herald

The other day, I had a hat trick, but not at the rink. It happened on the road. I was on my way to Bismarck for the opening of the Legislature, and I saw three species of chicken-like birds.

It’s not too hard to score a hat trick of chickens in rural North Dakota. The state has six species that the field guides call “gallinaceous birds.” It might be possible to find all of them in a single day, but that’s a feat I haven’t quite managed.

The state isn’t naturally rich in chickens. Four of the six are immigrants, two came from Europe and two from elsewhere in North America.

That leaves two native species. Of these, one is emblematic of the prairie, another of woodlands.

Of course, that means that one of the native chickens is quite a lot more common than the other.

This is the sharp-tailed grouse, one of the most appealing of prairie species, for birders and hunters alike. I have a lifelong fascination with sharptails. Suezette and I call the place we own in Mountrail County “Sharp Tail Ranch,” and our mission statement is “Raise more sharptails.”

I don’t have to go to western North Dakota to see sharp-tailed grouse, however. They’re fairly common wherever there is grass enough for them to hide and brush enough for them to roost and food enough to sustain them.

This sort of situation was widespread, even in the Red River Valley. Cutbacks in the Conservation Reserve Program have eliminated a lot of this kind of habitat. Dry conditions might have been even more fatal to sharptails, however. Patches of prairie have been ditched, drained, burned and plowed in the last couple of years.

Sharptails are vulnerable to fragmentation of habitat. They are social birds, well known for their communal courtship, which draws birds from a wide area. As grassland disappears, some members of the flock succumb, and reproductive success goes down.

Ruffed grouse, the native chicken of the woodlands, is a dancer, too, but usually a soloist — until a potential mate shows up, of course. The drumming of ruffed grouse is a sign of spring wherever these birds occur. In North Dakota, they are limited to areas of woodland such as the Pembina Hills, the Turtle Mountains and the shores of Devils Lake. In Minnesota, ruffed grouse — often called partridges — are much more common.

The actual partridge, however, is a European immigrant. It’s the smallest of the chickens found here. Gray partridges, often called Hungarian partridges or Huns, are gray overall, but with a chestnut-colored horseshoe emblazed on the belly and chestnut highlights in the wings.

The ring-necked pheasant is an introduction from Asia, reflected in one of its common names, Chinese pheasant. This is probably the species most sought by hunters. It’s common in much of North Dakota — abundant in some areas — but it’s not well-adapted to the extreme cold and wind that characterizes the Red River Valley. Most pheasants seen here are probably escapees from game farms.

A third introduced species is the wild turkey. This is a North American native, of course, but it didn’t occur here. And it didn’t move here of its own accord. Instead, the turkey became established through efforts of hunters and wildlife clubs. Today, turkeys are fairly common in wooded areas in northeastn North Dakota, sometimes including farm shelterbelts.

The sixth chicken species is probably also an immigrant — but on its own accord. This is the greater prairie chicken. The prairie chicken apparently moved north and west as the prairie was plowed. By the early 1900s, it was abundant. Numbers fell back, however, and local populations disappeared. The chickens that occur in the valley today have been reintroduced — and their fate remains in question.

All of the chicken-like birds are year-round residents. In fact, they are often easiest to find in winter, when they often forage along roadsides — exactly like the three species I found on Monday.

In chronological order, my sightings were gray partridge, sharp-tailed grouse and ring-necked pheasant. This reflects the relative abundance of these species across the state.


Jacobs is publisher of the Herald. Reach him at (701) 780-1103; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1103; or send email to mjacobs@gfherald.com.

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