Reproductive Rate Key To Small Game Populations

By Scott Shalaway
AFTER WEEKS of unseasonably warm temperatures, there’s finally a fall chill in the air. Cooler temperatures and falling leaves trigger distant memories.

When I turned 12, my father took me hunting for the first time. We had a bird dog, and on Saturday mornings we roamed nearby fields in search of ring-necked pheasants and cottontails. I learned gun safety and hunting strategy in pursuit of small game. October was the highlight of our hunting season.

Though hunting is on the decline, millions of hunters across the country still pursue pheasants, cottontails, squirrels and other small game species. The obvious question to a casual observer is, “how can these small animals sustain such relentless hunting pressure?”

The answer is “reproductive potential.” That’s the term biologists use to describe the high reproductive rate of these species.

Cottontails, for example, begin breeding in February unless winter’s grip in unusually firm. As birthing time approaches, the female digs a shallow hole in the ground. The female lines the nest with fur she plucks from her belly and covers the opening with grass, making it difficult to see from above. Nests usually are placed in stands of dense grasses, but sometimes cottontails even sink their nests into well-manicured lawns.

After a 30-day pregnancy, females give birth to four or five blind, naked young. Females nurse their brood only at dawn and dusk. They spend the rest of the day feeding or resting. After about a week in the nest, the young are fully furred, and their eyes and ears open. They leave the nest after 14 days. By the age of one month the young are weaned and independent.

Meanwhile, mom has been busy. She mates shortly after giving birth, so she’s pregnant with a second brood while nursing the first. A single female might breed four or five times in a year and produce up to 35 babies. The combination of large litter size, multiple broods, and rapid growth makes cottontails prolific breeders. That’s how they can sustain heavy losses to predators and hunters.

In fact, wildlife biologists treat hunters as just another predator when determining annual season lengths and harvest limits.

Squirrels (Red, Gray and Fox) produce litters of four or five pups twice a year while conditions are good, but forgo the summer litter when nut supplies are low. But by making more babies when food is abundant, squirrel populations are resilient and relatively stable.

That’s why each fall state wildlife agencies issue mast reports that estimate the anticipated production of nuts and berries. Biologists and hunters use these projections to determine when and where to hunt squirrels. And then there are the Ring-necked Pheasants I hunted as a kid in southeastern Pennsylvania. Today, they’re essentially gone.

Habitat loss due to clean farming techniques and pheasants’ inability to survive severe winters have decimated ring-neck populations from Michigan to Pennsylvania. Back-to-back killer winters in 1977 and 1978 devastated ring-neck numbers, and in 1993 the big March blizzard delivered another death blow.

Though there are pockets of breeding pheasants here and there, and many states still have token pheasant seasons, self-sustaining populations are few here in the east.

Pennsylvania propagates ring-necks on game farms. This fall the plan is to release 100,000 birds at a cost of more than $2.7 million for fiscal year 2006-2007, according to Game Commission spokesman Jerry Feaser. This includes the cost of operating four farms, personnel and fixed assets.

Though most wildlife biologists take a dim view of an expensive stocking program that yields few birds capable of surviving the winter and ultimately nesting, the Pennsylvania Game Commission serves the people that pay the bills. It explains propagating pheasants on its Web site thusly: “We raise pheasants because people like to hunt them.”

Though I gave up small game hunting more than 30 years ago, I still enjoy the cackle of a cock bird and the zig-zag escape of a speedy cottontail.

They bring back fond memories of a boy, his dad, and a favorite dog. –Pittsburgh Post Gazette