Sunday, February 5th, 2023
Sunday, February 5th, 2023

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State pheasant counts down from a year ago

Staff Writer

Madelia, Minn. Wet and unseasonably cool weather this spring
likely caused a 47-percent drop in the pheasant counts from 2003,
the DNR announced last Thursday.

The DNR roadside surveys, conducted during the first two weeks
of August, show pheasant populations will be close to the 10-year
average.

“It’s disappointing to see the populations are down, but
Minnesota will still see a fairly decent pheasant hunting year,”
said Matt Holland, the Minnesota conservation director for
Pheasants Forever. “We were really set up, though, to have a
fantastic year.”

The roadside surveys are used mainly to tally annual changes and
long-term trends in the state’s pheasant population. The DNR also
counts other species like gray partridge and rabbits along the 153
routes in the pheasant range.

Initially, it looked like last spring would be a good one for
pheasants, said John Giudice, DNR wildlife research biologist in
Madelia who coordinated the statewide surveys.

“March and April were warmer and drier than average, which
typically bodes well for wildlife production,” Giudice said.
“Unfortunately, frequent rainfall and below average temperatures
prevailed during May and early June, the peak hatching period for
pheasants in Minnesota.”

The pheasant population was high going into the spring breeding
season. DNR spring counts on intensive study areas of hens and
cocks were up 44 percent and 15 percent, respectively, from the
spring of 2003.

“I don’t know that I’ve seen a spring since I’ve been here with
more pheasants coming into the breeding season than we did this
spring,” Holland said.

The rainfall during May was 81 percent above the long-term
average. Southeast and northwest portions of the state had as much
or more than twice that number.

The temperatures in May and June were about 4 degrees cooler
than normal as well.

“Pheasant and gray partridge chicks simply can’t survive in
cold, wet weather,” Giudice said. “In addition, poor weather
reduces the amount of available food and time for foraging.
Flooding after heavy rainfall also caused nest loss and abandonment
in some areas.”

Mean brood size decreased from five chicks per brood in 2003 to
4.2 chicks per brood in 2004. The brood index (broods per 100
miles) decreased 45 percent in 2004, the DNR said.

While it’s unlikely this year’s pheasant season will be the
banner that last year’s was, there is some optimism the population
didn’t suffer as much as the numbers seem to indicate.

“I’ve heard anecdotal reports of real young broods being seen
out there yet,” Holland said. “We’ve seen that before, where late
production was missed by the early August survey. In those years,
you tend to see a lot of young birds even into October.”

The southwest and south-central regions of the state should
provide the best hunting opportunities, the DNR said.

Habitat in the pheasant range is at its highest levels since the
mid-1990s, Giudice said. More than one million acres of grassland
habitat are enrolled in various conservation programs. State
wildlife management areas and federal waterfowl production areas
offer another 550,000 acres of protected habitat.

Finding the good habitat will be the key to this year’s hunt,
Holland said.

“Our philosophy is always one acre at a time, and that’s what
hunters are going to find again this year,” Holland said. “In
places where there is good grassland, wetlands and good winter
cover, they are going to find birds this year.”

Other counts

The roadside counts are meant primarily for pheasants, but they
provide information for other animals as well.

Gray partridge numbers declined 58 percent from last year and
were 55 percent below the 10-year average. The number of adults
observed was similar to other years, but brood size and the
proportion of adults observed with broods were down.

The cottontail rabbit count was down 29 percent from last year,
but similar to 10-year and long-term population trends.

Jackrabbits declined 54 percent compared to last year. The
statewide count was similar to the 10-year average, but down 89
percent from the long-term average.

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