Pheasants Forever’s 2008-2009 Winter Update
Harsh winter combined with habitat losses create tough times for pheasants.
Saint Paul, Minnesota – The 2008-2009 pheasant season has ended or is winding down in a few states as quickly as the temperatures outside have been plummeting. To date, the winter of 2008-2009 has been harsher than recent years in many places across the pheasant range. This has created a myriad of inquiries to Pheasants Forever’s offices from people concerned about pheasant populations.
Upland bird numbers fluctuate from year-to-year due to two main factors: the amount of quality habitat and weather. It is easy to predict that a prolonged period of severe weather will diminish populations, but pheasants are resilient creatures with an uncanny ability to bounce back, especially when given winter cover to make it through harsh weather and then nesting cover to ensure sufficient reproduction in the spring. So far, many of the calls and emails Pheasants Forever has received center on the ability of pheasants to find food.
“Our first thought may be, ‘those pheasants are going to starve if I don’t feed them,'” said Jesse Beckers, Pheasants Forever Regional Wildlife Biologist in North Dakota, a state hit particularly hard this winter, “But is this the limiting factor when it comes to pheasants surviving harsh winter conditions? The answer is no. It all comes down to habitat, namely good winter cover. A pheasant that starves to death is rare, and most will die of exposure or predators long before starvation. Corn and grains are diet staples for wintering pheasants, but they also feed on weed seeds and berries. So what can we do to ensure the pheasants will make it through a tough winter? Establish some winter cover on your property to limit stress, and establish good nesting cover so the hens that do make it through the winter can reproduce. It’s also important to remember that only 10 percent of the autumn’s roosters are needed to maintain the population from year-to-year. Hen survival through winter and their health coming into the reproduction cycle is critical. It’s all about habitat and hens.”
Indeed, a study completed by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources shows that good habitat has the ability to produce a 96 percent hen survival rate during a mild winter and a 43 percent hen survival rate during a snowy winter. Comparatively, a study area with poor habitat produces a 90 percent hen survival rate during a mild winter and only a 23 percent survival rate for hens during a snowy winter. Unfortunately, this winter has come at a time when quantity and quality of habitat is suffering. Over 7.5 million acres have expired from the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) in recent years, and most have been converted for row crop production (South Dakota will have lost the equivalent of a one mile wide strip of land from Sioux Falls, SD, to Pittsburgh, PA, in habitat from 2007-2009). “We cannot predict what Mother Nature will do, but what a winter such as this reminds us is that what we can do is always work at establishing quality habitat, and that includes winter cover,” Beckers added. Some important things to consider relating to winter cover:
Wetland complexes provide excellent winter cover for wildlife during the harsh winter months. It is not uncommon for wetlands to hold 75% of the wintering pheasant population. Wetlands can consist of thick cattails and shrubs, blocking snow and keeping wildlife warm – in essence keeping birds dry and out of the wind. The north and west sides of the wetland may get drifted with snow, but in a large complex much of the wetland will stay open. Shelterbelts: Trees and shrubs provide excellent winter cover and shrubs block wind, snow drifts, and provide loafing, roosting, and escape cover for pheasants. For maximum benefit, tree rows and shelterbelts must follow some basic rules. They should not be planted in a prairie complex, as prairies are vital as nesting and brood rearing cover in the spring, and tree rows attract predators and act as perches for raptors. Tree and shrub plantings should consist of 15 rows at least 150 feet wide. Shrubs are planted on the windward rows, with juniper/cedar in the leeward rows. Winter Feeding: Pouring corn and grain on the ground during winter will attract pheasants, but it will also attract a wide range of other wildlife, including predators. If you are determined to feed pheasants, it is important to understand that it will likely congregate birds and will attract predators and draw wildlife a great distance away from winter habitat, killing more birds than starvation. Food Plots: Although food sources are typically not a limiting factor for pheasant numbers, food plots do provide benefits for wildlife with a consistent food source through the winter months, especially for carrying strong hens into nesting season. However, location must be carefully considered in relation to winter cover. Food plots should be at least 5 acres in size, and within or next to winter cover. If pheasants have to travel any great distance in the open between winter cover and food plots, they are exposed to winter weather and predators that may be nearby. Corn and grain sorghum provide an excellent food source and some cover in winter months. Plant your food plots on the leeward side and within ¼ mile of winter cover to avoid blowing and drifting snow.
Pheasants Forever’s Winter Update Continued: State-by-State
South Dakota – In recent years, South Dakota has experienced very mild winters which have helped produce record pheasant populations. To date, the 2008-2009 winter has brought an end to this mild spell as constant cold fronts carrying snow, arctic temperatures and strong winds (up to 70 mph in some areas) have passed across the entire state. This bombardment has taken its toll as habitat conditions continue to grow worse. Blowing snow has begun to fill up much of the winter cover provided by farmstead shelterbelts, field windbreaks, cattail sloughs and other CRP grasses. “Pheasant losses this winter have been minimal,” said Chad Switzer, Senior Upland Game Biologist for the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks “But if the current weather patterns persist through the remainder of the winter, conditions may become difficult for pheasants and other residential wildlife.” An increase in winter mortality for pheasants is expected this season when compared to previous years, however, early observations from South Dakota’s winter sex ratio study indicates there is a higher than expected surplus of roosters remaining from the 2008-2009 hunting season. This is likely the cause of a late corn harvest and inclement weather conditions because both resident and non-resident license sales for 2008-2009 were equivalent to the 2007-2008 season. Reports from all across the state indicated another successful pheasant season for South Dakota – as is predicted for next fall – but future heavy snowfall, the duration of extremely cold temperatures and strong winds will dictate the overall effect of this winter on local pheasants. “Feeding pheasants is strongly discouraged as it increases chances of predation and disease,” added Switzer, “Landowners who have an interest in the well-being of pheasants can significantly increase the quality of winter cover by excluding livestock from any woody habitat that provides overhead thermal protection.” To join your local South Dakota PF Chapter, go to www.PheasantsForever.org.
Iowa – Pheasants sure could have used some good news after last winter’s record-setting snow and devastating floods. Unfortunately, the snow has been falling again in Iowa since early December. “We could use a break and so far we are not getting it,” stated Todd Bogenschutz, Wildlife Biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. To date, winter snowfall has averaged 15-30 inches across the northern half of Iowa with less than 15 inches across the southern half. This has caused the good habitat in the northern portion of the state to begin drifting in. If this continues through the month of March at the rate of snow seen in December and early January, Iowa will likely see lower pheasant populations for the second consecutive year, according to Bogenschutz. Iowa DNR data shows an average loss of three percent of the hen population for every week the ground has snow or ice cover from December 1st to March 31st. In a normal winter the state sees around seven weeks of snow cover, Iowa already has about four weeks of cover. An inadequate amount of habitat for winter conditions and nesting is the largest limiting factor for pheasants in Iowa. Keeping this in mind, it has become paramount that people understand the devastating effects a harsh winter can have and consider taking part in a local habitat or food plot project for next year. “There are plenty of Pheasant Forever chapters who are more than willing to help,” added Bogenschutz. To join your local Iowa PF Chapter, go to www.IowaPF.org.
North Dakota – The 2008-2009 winter weather conditions have been brutal in North Dakota. Winter started early this year and hasn’t let up yet. At present, there is roughly 30+ inches of snow in the central part of the state with all of the prominent pheasant areas having an estimated 24+ inches. Freezing rain, ice and strong winds have also added to the rough season. Luckily there is still a fair amount of CRP land available for many birds to find shelter. “As of right now, it sure looks like this winter is going to have a negative effect on future pheasant populations,” said Stan Kohn, Upland Game Supervisor for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, “But we’ll just have to wait and see when the snow recedes.” During tough winters it is especially important that pheasants have adequate protection. With the end of January and all of February and March still looming in the distance it is hard to say what will happen to North Dakota’s pheasant population. To join your local North Dakota PF Chapter, go to www.PheasantsForever.org.
Minnesota – Since early to mid-December, Minnesota’s pheasant range has been experiencing well below normal temperatures (with wind chills as low as -44 degrees) and consistent snow cover of over six inches. This has made it difficult for the local pheasant population since a majority of the grass habitat is now full of snow and the smaller wetlands are beginning to give-in to the weight of snow drifts. Fortunately, the larger cattail wetlands and shelterbelts are still providing adequate winter cover in most areas. “Minnesota had a good 2008 hunting season,” said Kurt Haroldson, Wildlife Research Biologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, “But the size of the 2009 pheasant population will be determined by how many hens survive the winter; both hen survival and chick production are heavily influenced by weather. If this severe weather persists then hen survival will decrease and the 2009 pheasant population will be lower than in previous years.” It should also be noted that in northwestern Minnesota – where they have received in excess of 20 inches of snow – the Winter Severity Index is already higher in January than it has been in the past two years overall. Haroldson suggests that winter is a great time to review habitat conditions and plan projects to overcome deficiencies. “Pheasants would benefit from more grasslands in almost every Minnesota landscape,” Haroldson added, “Also, the best case scenario would provide at least one block of secure winter cover such as cattail marshes, dense shrub swamp, or planted shelter belt associated with a food plot.” To join your local Minnesota PF Chapter, go to www.MinnesotaPF.org.
Montana – The rolling prairies found north of Montana’s Hi-Line have been experiencing a full-blown winter while other portions of the state have varied considerably. Following a 2008 pheasant season that was very good in some areas and extremely mediocre in others, many Montana residents are happy to hear that habitat found along the Milk River and lower Missouri River are in good condition with abundant winter cover being found adjacent to feed plots or grain stubble. The concern for Montana pheasants gets progressively worse along the Hi-Line going from west to east. “Unless conditions moderate and snow cover bares off, we expect above average winter kill in the northeast corner of Montana with more variable mortality rates elsewhere,” stated Rick Northrup, Game Bird Coordinator with the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. This news is especially unfortunate since the northeast corner of the state – extending south to Glendive and Miles City – appeared to have the greatest hunter success this past season. Although Montana residents will have to wait and see how the last half of winter shapes up, Northrup encourages people to partake in block shrub and food plot plantings since it is the best thing people can do in a northern climate where nesting cover is sufficient. To join your local Montana PF Chapter, go to www.MontanaPF.org.
Kansas – According to Randy Rodgers, Wildlife Biologist with the Kansas Department of Wildlife & Parks, with the exception of a two-week period in December, Kansas’ pheasant range has experienced relatively mild conditions. Following the phenomenal pheasant season of 2007, this year saw a somewhat smaller pheasant take due to a later crop harvest giving the roosters plenty of cover to hide in. “Lack of snow has probably hurt us a little in terms of hunting success, but it sure hasn’t hurt the birds,” explained Rodgers. Even though there will always be some degree of habitat degradation during the winter, the minimal amount of snow has even allowed some weaker-stemmed grasses to remain upright. “It’s unlikely this winter will have a significant negative effect on our pheasant population,” said Rodgers, “Right now, the few signs we can read are generally positive. But, of course, there’s a long way to go before the 2009 season opens.” To join your local Kansas PF Chapter, go to www.PheasantsForever.org.
Nebraska – Although Nebraska has been experiencing a very cold winter season, the amount of precipitation has been less than in previous years. “Much of the snow that has been received throughout the state has been short-lived and usually began melting within a few days,” said Dr. Jeffrey Lusk, Upland Game Program Manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. This is good news for the pheasant population since the dry summer conditions Nebraska sustained caused some of the pheasant habitat to suffer. So far, the 2008-2009 Nebraska pheasant season has been going very well, especially in the southwestern portion of the state, and it is clear that pheasants still have access to food and residual cover. Having survived half of the winter season fairly unscathed, Nebraska should anticipate good pheasant carryover for spring reproduction – as long as February and March don’t bring severe snow or ice storms. To help assure a healthy pheasant population in the future, Lusk suggests that landowners create plenty of winter cover near areas where pheasants can forage for food. “The less pheasants have to move to find food and shelter, the better condition they will remain in during the winter and into breeding season,” added Lusk. If possible, pheasants tend to travel no more than a quarter mile away from their winter cover to feed. To join your local Nebraska PF Chapter, go to www.NebraskaPF.com.
Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever are non-profit conservation organizations dedicated to the protection and enhancement of pheasant, quail, and other wildlife populations in North America through habitat improvement, land management, public awareness, and education. PF/QF has more than 130,000 members in 700 local chapters across the continent.
For additional information please visit www.PheasantsForever.org