Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center
Each fall, thousands of North Dakota hunters clip wings, feet and/or pull feathers from upland game birds they bag. Biologists and wardens collect some of these bird parts as part of their field work. The majority are dutifully placed in postage-paid double envelopes and mailed by hunters to the Game and Fish Department's Bismarck office.
Wing envelopes begin arriving in mid-September, shortly after sharptail, Hungarian partridge, ruffed grouse and sage grouse seasons open. Biologists examine the contents of each envelope. By looking at key indicators on feathers and feet, they determine the age and sex of each bird. When all the information is tallied, we have a pretty good idea about the ratio of adults (birds that have survived at least one winter) to juveniles (birds that hatched the same year) harvested, which allows the Department to assess reproductive success from the previous summer.
Hunters who chase North Dakota's pheasants, sharp-tailed grouse, Hungarian partridge, ruffed grouse, sage grouse and wild turkeys are responsible for species identification before pulling the trigger. Sex identification isn't necessary (or possible in most cases), except for pheasant and spring turkey hunters, where hens aren't legal game.
Normally, identification of birds on the wing is obvious. However, hunters sometimes mistake hen pheasants for sharp-tailed grouse, or young pheasants for sharptails or partridge. Such mistakes are usually made early in the grouse season, before pheasants are legal. A good rule to follow is that if you're not positive about the identity of your target, don't shoot. You'll get other chances.
Once you've got a bird in your hand, you should know what kind it is. But how do you know if it's a male or female (pheasants excluded)? Did the bird hatch this summer, or did it survive last winter? To biologists charged with managing upland game populations and seasons, the answers to these questions — based on samples of hundreds or thousands of birds — are vital.
To an individual hunter, whether a sharptail is a male or female, or whether a rooster is a juvenile or adult, is little more than a simple matter of curiosity. This guide is designed to satisfy that curiosity - to show the indicators biologists use to determine sex and/or age. It does not show every possible indicator for each species, but that isn't necessary. It covers the things biologists get from wing envelopes, and that is almost always enough.
When you know what to look for, you can usually make a pretty good guess as to the sex and/or age of the birds in your bag (even biologists are occasionally stumped). If nothing else, you can impress your hunting partners with your new-found knowledge.
Even if you think you've become an expert, though, keep those wings, feet and feathers coming. A good sample size means good information on which to base future seasons.