Prospects improve for pheasant hunters
Counts indicate 65-percent increase in ringneck numbers
By Tim Spielman
Madelia, Minn. With the pheasant opener in Minnesota just a
month away, wildlife officials in Minnesota are predicting an
improved harvest, based on a recent roadside survey that showed a
65-percent increase in pheasant numbers. The ringneck opener is
Oct. 11 this year.
John Guidice, who oversees the annual counts for the state DNR,
said several factors, including an increase in grassland
conservation and restoration efforts, a relatively mild winter, and
fair weather during nesting and brood rearing, promoted the
increase in ringneck numbers. Casual observers in Minnesota’s
pheasant range also say they’re seeing more birds.
“Overwinter survival was probably above average in most areas,
and hens entered the nesting season in excellent condition,”
Guidice said. A year ago, a mild winter resulted in an 86-percent
increase in pheasant numbers.
Last year, about 91,000 hunters harvested about 358,000
pheasants in Minnesota, according to Guidice. This year, he
predicts hunters will harvest between 410,000 and 637,000 birds,
based on the roadside survey.
“It’s amazing the number of birds we have, considering habitat
loses,” he said. In the late 1950s and early ’60s, during the “Soil
Bank” years (when farmers were paid to retire cropland for 10
years) the pheasant harvest teetered near or above the 1 million
Dry conditions throughout this summer in most of the pheasant
range haven’t negatively affected ringnecks either, he added. “(Dry
conditions) usually don’t hurt pheasants unless it’s really bad,
especially during the brood season,” Guidice said. “Pheasants fill
most of their water needs from the foods they eat. Drought can
affect young chicks if it affects the invertebrates (that they
eat). This year, the drought came later in the season, and it’s
gotten bad just recently.”
Spring conditions for brood rearing ranged from excellent to
fair across Minnesota’s top pheasant habitat. Exceptions to the
good conditions, Guidice said, may have occurred in parts of
west-central, central, and east-central regions that experienced
heavy spring rainfall. The best conditions were in the southwest
and south-central regions of the state. Those areas will offer the
best hunting in 2003, but pockets of the rest of the state also
hold good potential.
Guidice said pheasants do best in landscapes that include 30 to
50 percent grasslands, and the remainder in row crops. In 2003,
undisturbed grassland habitat under the protection of farm programs
and wildlife agencies accounted for just 5.8 percent of the land
area within pheasant range, he said. Grassland conservation acres
increased .3 percent compared with 2002.
New conservation provisions in the 2002 federal farm bill could
increase the number of retired acres that will serve as pheasant
and associated wildlife habitat, Guidice said.
According to the DNR, population trends of pheasants and other
farmland wildlife are based on results of the department’s annual
roadside survey, which began in the 1940s, but was standardized in
The survey is completed during the first two weeks of August by
wildlife managers and conservation officers. The survey consists of
173 routes, each 25 miles long, with 153 routes located in the
ring-necked pheasant range. In addition to pheasants, “counters”
record sightings of gray partridge, cottontail rabbits, mourning
doves, and white-tailed jackrabbits.
Other species in the
Gray (Hungarian) partridge numbers were similar to last year,
but there was variation among survey routes and regions. The
proportion of adults observed with broods was down from last year,
but the brood counts were higher than ’02 and the 10-year
The number of cottontail rabbits increased 93 percent from last
year, and was 60-percent higher than the long-term average.
Cottontail numbers increased in five of seven regions; best chance
for harvest will be in south-central, southwest, and southeast
Jackrabbits counted during the survey were similar to last year
and the 10-year average, but remained 76-percent below the
long-term average. Guidice said the rabbit counts decreased to
their lowest level in 1993, and the population hasn’t
The small game season, which includes rabbits and partridge,
opens Saturday, Sept. 13.
Some state residents have questioned if insecticides used by
farmers in the pheasant range to reduce the effects of small bugs
have been harmful to ringnecks.
So far, DNR wildlife officials say insecticides including
Warrior and Lorsban used to combat a soybean aphid haven’t been
shown to kill pheasants.
Guidice said both insecticides dissipate rapidly, and little if
any of the application reaches the ground. Both are applied
primarily by air. He said the aphid can reduce soybean yields by as
much as 50 percent.
Guidice said reports have come to him regarding dead pheasants
and the possibility that the insecticides were to blame. He
referred those callers to DNR fish and wildlife pathologist Joe
Marcino said to date, his lab hasn’t received any dead pheasants