Deteriorating conditions for pheasants

Madelia, Minn. – The 2009-10 pheasant-hunting season is yet to
draw to end, and already, state wildlife officials are concerned
about next year’s crop of birds.

The primary culprit is a winter storm that dumped a foot or more
of snow in much of the state’s south – the pheasant range. Finding
food now will challenge the species, according to Kurt Haroldson,
DNR pheasant researcher in Madelia.

“The birds appear to be in trouble,” he said earlier this
week.

Holiday travelers likely saw pheasants – hens and roosters alike
– standing in open and harvested crop fields. That’s a bad sign,
Haroldson said.

“They shouldn’t be visible in the middle of the day, but they
are,” he said. “It’s actually a sign of stress. For them to get
through this will be very difficult.”

Until the recent storm, Haroldson said pheasants in the state
“were in good shape.” Now, areas of good winter cover for pheasants
are at a premium.

“The smaller cattail marshes are already full of snow, and it’s
not even January yet,” he said Monday.

Research has shown, Haroldson said, that with increased winter
serverity comes greater predation on pheasants. While the birds
might seek cover in farm groves, they’ll be more susceptible to
predators like owls, he added. One saving grace for pheasants might
be the presence of unharvested crop fields.

“During the ’96-97 (harsh) winter in eastern South Dakota,
(standing corn) was the salvation for birds,” Haroldson said.

If food sources are close to good cover, energy expended to get
to them would be lessened, according to Haroldson. Should the
unharvested crop field be larger- say 10 acres or more – it might
provide pheasants with cover, too.

The severity of winter is a function of snow depth and the
longevity of deep snow, he said, defining “deep” as six-plus
inches.

“If this persists, it means (pheasant) survival is going to be
lower,” Haroldson said.

While pheasant-hunting pressure generally is light in December –
even given a more liberal, three-rooster limit – it might be
significantly reduced for the season’s final weekend (the season
ends Jan. 3). Haroldson said last weekend’s excursion for he and
his dog brought with it difficult walking conditions in thigh-deep
snow, and drifts that were even deeper.

What’s more likely to contribute to a lower-than-anticipated
state harvest were early season conditions – most notably, the
amount of standing corn in ag country – and fewer birds entering
the season, based on August roadside counts.

Haroldson said the expected harvest this year was about 420,000
roosters. “I don’t see us getting there,” he said.

The vast majority of the pheasant harvest occurs during the
first three weeks of the season, according to Haroldson, and this
year, when those three weeks were up, about 90 percent of the corn
crop still was standing. “So we lost a big opportunity,” he
said.

Further, Haroldson said it appeared the number of pheasant
hunters was down, and those pursuing pheasants diminished quickly
after the first few weeks of the season.

“The casual hunters found something else to do,” he said.

According to DNR Licensing, about 110,275 pheasant stamps were
sold this year. That’s about 10 percent fewer than last year, when
about 123,270 stamps were sold. In 2007 and 2006, on the heels of
promising August roadside wildlife counts, more than 129,000
pheasant stamps were sold.

On the flip side of poor hunting, Haroldson said reduced harvest
this year could mean more birds that dodged birdshot might survive
the winter.

The DNR does limited monitoring of pheasants during the winter.
“But just seeing them out in the open … is evidence enough that we
have severe conditions,” Haroldson said. He checks snow depth via
the DNR Office of Climatology to track the depth, as well as
longevity of deep snow – indicators of the conditions pheasants
across their range might be encountering.

Categories: Hunting News

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