Raising Pheasant from the Ground Up

Sustainable farming practices to benefit wildlife is a topic for discussion in grain capitols across the country. To the farmer, the mention of sustainability may trigger consideration of production and bottom line. To the biologist, thoughts of crop rotation and managed fallow lands provide wildlife food, water and shelter. And to the economist, efficiency and bang-for-the-buck in the form of yield versus effort/acreage sewn would likely provoke a back-of-the-napkin chart explaining the benefits.

So how does one actually define sustainable farming? A combination of all of the above. Sustainable farming includes economics, reducing production acreage to focus on the most productive for maximum yield. The less productive ground can be leased into CRP or to an NGO like Pheasants Forever to manage for wildlife.

To take it one step further, habitat-minded agriculture may provide a mix of no-till planting and forage and cover crops built into rotation schedules. This permits soil replenishment and works to combat invasive species by providing different plant competitors, insects, and invasive plant treatment options. Forage or cover crops can be sewn alongside winter cover like cattails and other wetland habitats to reduce energy expense and vulnerability critters may experience when seeking food and cover in winter. Pollinators benefit as well.

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Sounds great, right, but are the benefits actually attainable? Absolutely. Case-studies have proven the benefits to the farmer and wildlife through these sustainable practices. Midwest farms have shown production of preserve-scale wild pheasant through habitat-minded farming practices while maintaining or increasing their bottom line. And who out there would argue that they don’t enjoy wildlife like upland birds? If you answered “no one”, we couldn’t agree more!

If you find this encouraging from any perspective, reach out to your local Pheasants Forever or Quail Forever Chapter. In southeast Washington/northeast Oregon area, contact us at bmpf@bmpf258.com for more information.

Mason Bees Promote Food Security and Conservation

What’s your first thought when someone mentions pollination or pollinators? Is it flowers? Bees? Honey? Allergies? A gambling man would put money on it being honey and honey bees (why wouldn’t it bee, right?). While none of us could fathom a life without honey, bee pollination is critical for the success of native plant reproduction and diversity, and food crop and fruit production.

Introduced worldwide, honey bees are a vital part of our ecosystem, and because of their succulent honey, they are most commonly recognized for pollination and conservation efforts. Commercial apiaries rent pollination services that benefit crop production and provide the apiary a honey crop. But when it comes to pollination effectiveness, honey bees will forever live in the shadow of our solitary natives.

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Mason bee visiting a flower

North America boasts approximately 4,000 native bee species, ranging in size and shape from bumble bees to sweat bees, none of which build hives. Bumble bees comprise about 40 species and are quite obvious, yet the lesser known are easily confused with other less desirable flies. The mason bees.

Mason bees are aptly named for their reproductive habits. The female mason bee often occupies holes in wood with larvae secured behind mud plugs for safe development. Mason bees don’t excavate holes, rather they clean debris from suitable spaces, pack them with pollen that they carry in on their belly, and seal in an egg. The eggs of female offspring are deposited first, at the back of the space for protection from predators while male eggs are stacked in front. Eggs are laid in May, and larvae hatch and feed on the pollen until the following spring, when they emerge to complete their lifecycle.

A few common species like the blue orchard bee (Osmia lignaria) frequent our gardens and orchards, as well as our landscaped city blocks and urban homes. While some native species, like the emerald green sweat bee Agapostemon femoratus are obvious, mason bees are nondescript, dark colored or lightly striped, and smaller than honey bees. These are the bees that we see frequently but pay little mind or mistake for something else.

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Blue orchard bee (photo by USGS)

Mason bees are docile and lead solitary lives. Since they only reproduce once each year, they don’t need extensive hives or honey production, but also forfeit the glamour of their extraordinary pollination abilities. A single mason bee can visit up to 2,000 flowers per day and just a few mason bees can pollinate the same number of fruit trees as thousands of honey bees. For this reason, the blue orchard mason bee is prized as one of the few native pollinators managed in agriculture.

Jim Watts, founder of Rent Mason Bees in Woodinville, Washington, knows the value and business of native mason bees. Rent Mason Bees offers a pollination service much like commercial apiaries, but Watts’ crop is not honey. Its more bees. Rent Mason Bees is devoted to making mason bees available for everyone from large-scale pollination needs such as commercial orchards, right down to a studio apartment, and everything in between. And the process begins with you.

At present, with a global pandemic threatening our food production capabilities at the national level, food security has invigorated many worldwide to seek homesteading opportunities. Farm and garden stores and mail order catalogs have seen baby chicks flying out the door, as well as seed sources exhausted by a fresh flush of gardeners eager to fill new beds, prepped while in social isolation, with the hope of eventually sustaining themselves to some degree. And, as those new vegetables and orchards begin to bloom, the pollination of native mason bees can bolster the bounty, simply through their effectiveness at visiting and fertilizing so many flowers.

So, where do you play into all of this? You guessed it. You can rent mason bees from Rent Mason Bees. Watts and his team have developed a precise system for providing healthy mason bees and bee houses to residential and farm owners for their pollination benefits. By providing bees and bee boxes designed to attract mason bees for egg laying, Watts’ team can collect the larvae at the end of the mason bee lifecycle as they lie dormant until the next spring.

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Mason bee box provided to a residence by Rent Mason Bees

A brilliant, seven-minute documentary, The Bee Farmers, by filmmaker Steve Utaski, walks through the Rent Mason Bees process as they deliver bees and boxes for pollination, then collect, clean and store the larvae, which are encased in cocoons that look a little like coffee beans, in preparation for delivery the next year. The bee larvae that come from residential areas are distributed to interested large food crop producers where the bees ensure a healthy crop set to feed you, your family and our nation. As the cocoons are prepared for winter storage, the bee houses are sterilized and prepared for renting again the following season. By participating in the program, anyone has the ability to contribute to their personal and national food security and the success of local farm-to-table operations. And it doesn’t end there.

Watts’ operation propagates over 10 million native bees annually, contributing to the conservation of a desirable, local species that is presently experiencing population pressures from various land and chemical uses. At present, scientists estimate 25% of native bee species are on the brink of extinction. This makes the residential aspect of Watts’ mason bee operation so critical. With over 4,000 renters contributing cocoons, Rent Mason Bees ensures a fresh yield of pollinators each year.

The benefits of mason bee pollination and the logistics of Rent Mason Bees is captivatingly portrayed in The Bee Farmers to include the process of bee pollination and larvae deposition in stunning detail and story-telling. But Utaski’s attention to the ancillary benefit of community outreach and education, which Rent Mason Bees thrives on, is the most compelling aspect of the residential part of the program from, this biologist’s perspective.

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Extracting cocoons from a bee box

Biologist Olivia Shangrow with Rent Mason Bees attends public events, spreading the word and encouraging new renters to take part in the mason bee lifecycle and conservation. Parents can host a bee box and teach their children about the importance of pollination while keeping tabs on when and how the females populate the boxes with eggs. Because mason bees don’t colonize to protect a sole queen, mason bees are non-aggressive and family safe. The program also lends itself well to larger community-based projects, be it a host community garden or a community event where neighbors come together as a team to rent bees for the community.

Utaski’s film portrays the meaning of this program to Seattle residents, yet captures another less apparent, yet critically important detail. Our society at present is strongly self-reliant. In the age of social media, community neighbors are generally less social with one another on a personal level than our grandparents and parents experienced. The development of community-based participation in the Rent Mason Bees program leads to cohesion and cooperation, and collective youth learning and social interaction, away from internet-based platforms, formal education or sports.

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Cleaned cocoons being prepared for winter storage

Now is the time to reach out to Rent Mason Bees, as mason bee activity peaks in May. And like everyone else, Rent Mason Bees is feeling the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic and Washington’s “Stay at Home” order. Watts’ team is unable to conduct outreach and distribute mason bees effectively, but shipping is still an option. Bees need to find homes and farms where they can pollinate and have the opportunity to reproduce where the larvae can be collected. Otherwise, their 2020 offspring will be significantly reduced.

If you are on the fence, take a few moments to enjoy Steve Utaski’s The Bee Farmers, and read up on our native bees. They are a treasure to the nation, encouraging biodiversity and enhancing flower and vegetable gardens and fruit crops. Visit the U.S. Geological Survey, the Xerces Society and Rent Mason Bees to learn more.

Can Hunting Keep us Human?

Paula Young Lee poses the question in the High Country News. If this strikes you as a philosophical diatribe, you may be correct. But in an era where hunting is increasingly despised (read: misunderstood), the deeper meaning behind such ecosystem interaction at the human level of cognizance is indeed ponderous.

Hunting’s broader importance to human existence reconnects the severance between human life-history and the complex society we have developed. Humans operate under the disillusion that humans are superior to the natural ecosystem, having no association with the natural world or ecosystem function. But the hunter views things differently.

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⇑⇑ Above: the author with a cow elk, his first, taken on the Idaho winter range, December 2018. Hard earned and well respected. The tags for this special draw hunt have since been stripped from the public and given to private landowners as depredation tags. ⇑⇑

“It may seem like sophistry to argue that hunting protects wildlife, but the act of hunting encompasses far more than shooting a wild animal, and it neither starts nor ends with a death. The hunt itself is part of a much larger continuum.”

Diving deeper into the meaning of the hunt, Lee discusses the spiritual connection between hunter and prey, and that the hunter views wild game as a blessed gift. Lee reinforces her point of the larger continuum through an economics analogy related to the gift of wild game.

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⇑⇑ Above: A successful valley quail hunt with two hens falling to a pointing dog and swift gun work. This interaction with the canine and upland bird plays a crucial role in spiritual rejuvenation for the hunter, who, in turn, gives back to conservation. ⇑⇑

“In a gift economy, the act of giving compels the person who receives the gift to reciprocate. A gift can be refused, but that refusal has consequences. Hence, ethical hunters reciprocate by protecting the wilderness, giving of themselves to ensure that the forest stays the forest….”

Hunting maintains our connection with and works to conserve our place in the ecosystem, and the ecosystem itself. The preservation of human nature.

Upland Stewardship Begins at Home

What’s the #1 threat to habitat on undeveloped public lands? If you guessed invasive plant species, you get a gold star for the day. Overall, habitat lost to civil development is a critical threat to fish and wildlife, putting tremendous importance on conservation and management of those precious public acres still intact.

Managing public land is important to provide habitat suitable for wildlife species and is accomplished through taxpayer and sportsman’s funds. For federal lands, this means congressional appropriations must be approved for specific geographic areas and funding limits.

While public lands, both state and federal, are at much lower risk of civil development, the economics of habitat management is a major driver in our ability to maintaining high quality habitat, and here is why.

Invasive species are incredibly competitive and successful at overtaking desired native species. With no natural predator controls (i.e. herbivory and parasitism) and an adaptive edge to the climates in which they occur, many species can create monocultures in short order. What’s more is that the increasing cost of invasive species control detracts from government ability to fund general habitat management and enhancement.

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Once established, eradicating an invasive plant is incredibly difficult and extremely costly, in the billions of dollars nationwide, annually. Our ability to control invasive species on public lands can change dramatically with political leadership. And when natural resources budgets are cut, our ability to effectively maintain habitat is hamstrung.

Early Detection and Rapid Response is the normal mode of operation for habitat managers, but budget cuts cause vulnerability in on-the-ground effectiveness. Labor cuts can reduce the number of employees and hours spent afield performing Early Detection monitoring. Supply cuts can reduce the available tools to implement Rapid Response once invasive species are detected, as well as reduce the overall time or acreage that biologists can treat.

High-quality habitat is not just nice to have for an easy, clean hunt. It’s a must for sustainable upland bird species and hunter opportunity. Its easy to assume that habitat management and controlling invasive species lies in the hands of qualified biologists, but make no mistake, quality habitat starts at home with you, the general public.

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⇑⇑ The seat cover in my Tundra harbors a number of invasive species ⇑⇑

As our talented canines careen across the grasslands searching for sharptails or cut through brush following a running grouse trail, their fur picks up invasive weed seeds that can be easily spread to otherwise weed free areas. Tailgate checks and post-hunt spa treatments (for those of us who own long-haired pups like setters and Munsterlanders)  are necessary to remove to potentially harmful grass awns and bur-like seeds.

Most importantly, uplanders that embark on rooster road trips would be remiss if they failed to clean the nooks and crannies of their bird hunting chariot prior to driving half way across the nation. A single germinated seed from a nasty invader like cheat grass (Bromus tectorum) can quickly threaten native species and impact habitat suitability.

Be sure to clean out the truck bed, pet crates and blankets, truck seats and seat covers, spray down floor mats and vacuum the crevasses that can harbor seeds.

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⇑⇑ Cleaning vests, kennels, truck beds, and interiors is critical ⇑⇑

If your truck cap has a carpet liner, inspect it with scrutiny. Your dog will shake in the truck bed, flinging weed seeds onto the ceiling and anywhere else they may attach, simply waiting to be offloaded in an otherwise clean area 1,000 miles from where they were picked up.

And the cleaning spree should not end with the truck and kennels. Our vests and clothing can trap a terrifying number of seeds. When was the last time you check your hunting vest pockets for seeds? Hundreds of grass seeds can gather in vest pockets as we traverse the prairies. Dog vests can capture a number of species as well, like bur chervil (Anthriscus caucalis), which wreaks havoc on native grasses and even competes with yellow starthistle (Centaurea solstitialis) in the arid west.

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⇑⇑ A water bottle pocket of my hunting vest captures many seeds and plant debris ⇑⇑

Conservation and habitat management are influenced by each and every one of us. Its your duty as an uplander to exercise your stewardship abilities and battle the spread of invasive species. The future of our public natural resources and habitat depend on it.

Grass Awns and Gun Dogs

Have you ever stopped to consider the impact upland bird hunting has on your gun dog? Birds hunters are well aware of the physical exertion on ourselves, whether its pounding the prairie for sharptails and pheasant, or pushing through draws of aspen for ruffies. But I often ponder how many hunters really understand the effort a gun dog puts into a hunt, or the stress they endure.

Upland bird hunting is a full-contact sport for a your dog. No, there are no physical altercations with other dogs (generally…), although one of our feathered quarry may be run down and tackled on occasion, but the conditions endured by a gun dog in the field are downright hazardous.

In the grouse coverts, thickets of woody shrubs and aspen, prickly hawthorn, and windfalls stand to challenge your dog’s stamina, but can also poke, pinch, scratch, and gouge. In the southwest quail country, cactus, mesquite, barbed wire, venomous critters, and a hot, dry climate stand to work your dog into the ground. The rolling prairie appears to be the most benign of the common western settings, but are you aware that your hunting companion covers three to seven times the ground you do in a day’s jaunt, not to mention porcupines, badgers, and even grizzly bears on the plains of the Rocky Mountain Front?

Gun dogs are prone to exposure to a variety of habitats in pursuit of upland game across a given season, but among the plethora of potentially harmful phenomena in the field, grass awns stand among the top contenders for most harmful. While there are a number of precautions and post-hunt measures one can take to ensure the well-being of your fur baby, grass awns can go undetected, wreaking havoc on you pup’s health.

Two common, menacing grassesfoxtail barley (left) and cheat grass (right).

Grass awns are responsible for a number of unexplained illnesses, and even deaths among gun dogs annually. But how can a grass seed be so injurious? In the western US, several grass species including cheat grass (Bromus tectorum), foxtail barley (Hordeum jubatum), and cereal rye (Secale cereale), which are largely invasive grass species, form barbed tails on their seeds or awns. The awns attach to the dog’s fur, and the sharp point of the awn may work its way into the skin between toes, in ears, eyes, mouth, nose, arm-pits, etc., and the awn barbs continue to work the awn deeper into the tissue until it can enter the interior body cavity or muscle tissue.

The awn may carry bacteria as it enters the dog’s body, and/or it may carry bacteria that are normal inhabitants of one part of the body, usually the mouth, into other parts of the body where it is abnormal, establishing an infection, typically in the form of an abscess.

As we approach and enter upland bird seasons, late summer through fall, grasses dry out and the awns loosen, becoming prone to drop. The best advice? A careful tailgate inspection of your dog before leaving the field may allow removal and avert any illness. But, with awns that have been ingested, odds are that the damage is already done by the time you and your dog leave the field. Routinely check your dog for swellings, particularly at the lower rear sections of the rib-cage, a prime site for abscess development.

What to look for:

  • Hair: Matted hair that may eventually lead to sores against the skin if not removed.
  • Ear canal: The dog shakes the head, scratches or rubs the ears, holds head at a slightly tilted angle.
  • Between the eye/eyelid: The eyes of the dog get inflamed, sometimes including discharge or tears.
  • Nose: The dog sneezes, paws at the nose, and may experience nasal discharge
  • Gums, Tongue, Mouth: If swallowed, grass awns may stick to the back of the throat causing inflammation and swelling.
  • Lungs and Other Organs (inhalation or migration): The dog shows signs of serious sickness, coughing, short breath, and vomiting.
  • Rectum and Anal Glands: dog abnormally licking or scooting on the ground, trying to defecate often or for prolonged periods.

Zeta at the vetZeta at the vet, June 2019, to have cheat grass awns removed from both anal glands.

Learn to recognize hazardous plants, and be watchful where you are hunting, training, or just exercising your dog.  Typically, a simple tailgate inspection post-hunt or run to remove awns before they have the chance to penetrate the skin and begin to migrate will eliminate problem awns, but inspection may not always reveal hidden awns immediately.  A best practice is continued monitoring of your pup’s behavior after hunting through dangerous grasses. Being mindful of the vegetation in your hunting or training areas, coupled with thorough inspections will keep your four-legged partner pointing or flushing long into their upland career.