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Winter Pheasant Habitat Conditions

The winter of 2011-2012 has been mild to nonexistent across pheasant country. Photo by Roger Hill

The winter of 2010-2011 was severe for pheasants across much of their range, combining with habitat loss and a subsequent poor spring resulted in decreased populations in nearly every major pheasant state. The winter of 2011-2012, by comparison, has been mild, which means hens entering the upcoming spring nesting season should be in good shape to take advantage of areas providing quality nesting habitat.

There is also habitat hope on the horizon with a new Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) General Sign-up  this March, a new 750,000 acre CRP practice targeting highly erodible lands, and the reallocation of 1 million acres into some of Pheasants Forever’s favorite Continuous CRP programs.

Great LakesIllinois is experiencing its sixth warmest winter on record, meaning the above average snowfall the state received didn’t persist across the state’s pheasant range for long. “If the trend continues through March , the mild weather should be a boon to pheasant winter survival,” reports Mike Wefer, Ag and Grassland Wildlife Program Manager with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources…Winter has been nonexistent in Indiana according to Budd Veverka, Farmland Game Research Biologist with the Indiana Division of Fish and Wildlife. Provided there’s not significant spring flooding, Veverka expects the state’s pheasant population to increase some…Ohio’s milder winter has been encouraging, says Nathan Stricker with the Ohio Division of Wildlife.

Iowa – Is there finally some good news to report for Iowa ringnecks? “Winter so far is a welcomed relief following five consecutive winters of 30-50” snowfall,” says Todd Bogenschutz, Upland Wildlife Research Biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. As of the first week in March, statewide snowfall was at 15”. Citing similar patterns from 2002, 2003 and 2005, Bogenschutz expects some population increase if there is little snowfall in March and combined April/May rainfall is below 8”. He also underscored the importance of habitat. “We have some 230,000 acres of CRP expiring this fall. We are putting a lot of effort into the upcoming CRP General Sign-Up.”

Kansas – Kansas is experiencing a fairly mild winter, and adult pheasant survival is expected to be high.  “However, many areas in the state’s primary pheasant range are still drier than normal, and we actually need some moisture, even snow if possible, to get us out of the drought conditions that have plagued western Kansas this last year,” says Dave Dahlgren, Small Game Specialist with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, “Compared to this time last year however, we are faring better, but we are in need of good spring weather to have a fair to good hatch this summer. “Dahlgren says it may take a couple of “rebuilding” years in southeast and southwest Kansas to bring the population back following one of the worst droughts on record.

The national snow depth map as of Monday, March 12, shows the pheasant range virtually devoid of snow cover.

Minnesota – Add Minnesota to the list of states where pheasants needed a break from Old Man Winter, as the population in the state’s core southwest pheasant range was down more than 80 percent last year. So far, they’ve gotten it. “Most of Minnesota’s pheasant range experienced one of the mildest winters in 25 years,” said Kurt Haroldson, Wildlife Research Scientist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, “Temperatures were well above normal and, more importantly for pheasant survival, snowfall was well below normal.  In contrast to last winter when persistent deep snow inundated cover and food, snow cover this winter tended to be shallow and short-lived.  Pheasant survival should be well above average during this mild winter.” Haroldson says if weather during the nesting season is favorable, Minnesota’s pheasant population should make great strides toward recovery from the previous winter’s losses, although a full recovery will take more than one year and will also depend on changes in habitat abundance, namely CRP expirations.

Nebraska – After a year in which the state’s overall pheasant population fell 27 percent, the weather fortunes have started off positively for Nebraska ringnecks in 2012. “The winter in Nebraska was overall mild, especially in comparison to the winters of 2009 and 2010,” said Jeff Lusk, Upland Game Program Manager with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, “We had few snow events of any consequence, and temperatures were mostly unseasonably warm.  Because of the warm temperatures, snow didn’t last very long when it did snow.  As such, I expect that over-winter survival was good, which should boost production, assuming the spring/summer weather cooperates.” Nebraska will officially assess over-winter pheasant survival with April population surveys.

North Dakota – After three consecutive long winters, it’s been an exceptionally mild one in North Dakota this year. “We expect good survival of pheasants though this winter statewide.  Winter has been exceptionally mild, little snow.  Pheasants seem to be in good shape, at least up to March 1,” reports Stan Kohn, Upland Game Management Supervisor with the North Dakota Game & Fish Department. Even with snow depths at 30 to 40 percent of normal, Kohn says in his part of the country, pheasants aren’t out of clear of winter until about the first week in April. Despite a more favorable winter, North Dakota’s adult spring pheasant population is going to be lower than it has in the last five years, with a breeding population most closely resembling what was observed in the early 2000s.

South Dakota – Pheasants Forever members and pheasants hunters are closely monitoring conditions in South Dakota, where the pheasant population had dropped nearly 50 percent last year. “The ground was brown for a majority of the winter, which will certainly increase pheasant winter survival,” said Travis Runia, Upland Game Biologist with the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks, adding that predation rates are typically lower for pheasants when there is not any snow on the ground. A Leap Year snowstorm dumped more than a foot of snow across the SoDak pheasant belt, but warm temps cut into it quick and Runia says the snow will help “green up” the grasses pheasants focus on for nesting. While the weather side of things has turned rosier, the habitat side isn’t, as the state has lost more than 400,000 CRP acres in five years with another 225,000 set to expire from the program later this year. In addition to this, Runia estimates 75,000 to 100,000 acres of native prairie have been converted to cropland annually since 2008.

West – Like the nearly 1 million acres of CRP lost in the state since 2006, last winter was brutal on Montana’s upland birds. A milder start to 2012 will be critical to any population rebound this year. “Statewide we have had a relatively open winter, said Rick Northrup, Wildlife Habitat Section Supervisor with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks…Oregon’s pheasant population was near its modern average heading into winter, which brought little snow to much of the state’s pheasant range. Dave Budeau, Upland Game Bird Coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, says early to mid-spring precipitation is now needed to improve grass and forb production for spring nesting.

Field Notes are written and compiled by Anthony Hauck Pheasants Forever’s Online Editor. Email Anthony at AHauck@pheasantsforever.org and follow him on Twitter @AnthonyHauckPF.

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2 Responses to “Winter Pheasant Habitat Conditions”

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  1. DJ says:

    A 10-12″ layer of snow in very cold weather can be beneficial to birds as it allows them to borrow underneath. Roosting undersnow coveer canm be 40 degrees warm than tree or open ground roostin, especially when you consider wind chill.

    But in our area of western Pa. the winter was not very cold. My Entomologist friend at Penn State says that insects will be “bad” (increased numbers) this spring and summer due to the fact that we did not have a hard freeze. Therefore insects including ticks, fleas, ants, wasps, spiders and most insects that die off or go dormant in winter did not and they are seeing early emergence as soon as January rather than April. This might be good for bird broods this spring with extra forage but might be a bane for the hunting dog….and hunters. Start your Heartworm coverage earlier and use a good monthly coverage for fleas & ticks as well as a supplemental spray before enter the fields & woods.

  2. Jason says:

    DJ, funny you mentioned that. I’m from western PA as well and the tick issue is true. Took the dogs on a walk this past weekend and yes, the following morning found a bloated tick. Never thought I would be putting flee and tick on my bird dogs in early March. Crazy.

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