Aug 30, 2016
The ‘whrrr’ of wings and the familiar cackle of a brightly colored ringneck busting cover is music to the ears of any Iowa bird hunter. It’s a combination muted in the last decade, as killer winter weather and less pheasant friendly habitat drove down upland game populations.
In recent years, though, a slow turnaround has pheasant numbers improving. For the summer, 2016 count, pheasants tallied on 215 gravel road routes were down a little, but maintained stronger numbers than through the late 2000s, when five catastrophic (to pheasants!) winters were strung together. To produce more fall pheasants…you first need good nesting conditions…and ahead of that, better winter survival of egg-laying hens. All that lays the groundwork, for August roadside surveys, across Iowa.
Statewide, pheasants numbered just under 21 per 30 mile route. Northwest counties were highest; about 33 birds; despite an average snowfall of 47 inches across the region. An average of 30 inches or more, usually drives down hen survival and—consequently—chicks produced.
DNR upland game biologist Todd Bogenschutz applauds the counts, noting that in 2007, with similar numbers, hunters harvested 630,000 pheasants. Last year, only 270,000 were taken. Bogenschutz says a big factor in this year’s harvest is getting hunters to return to the field…since Iowa’s favorite game bird IS coming back.
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An east central Iowa surprise…
With ideal weather conditions, we set out at dawn on our ‘less than ideal’ pheasant count route. Just a couple hours later, though, we were wrapping up a banner year for our little section of Iowa; one of 215 surveys conducted each year to help assemble the state’s upland game forecast for the hunting season just ahead.
In a typical year, Iowa DNR wildlife technician Dave Kutz and I would see one pheasant on his 30-mile Cedar County route; basically east, north and west of Tipton. Frequently, the total was zero. So, as it touched ten (!!) over the last couple miles, we had cause to celebrate.
“With four young pheasants in heavy roadside vegetation, even a rooster a few yards away, you still wonder where the ‘cover’ was”, wondered Kutz. “Earlier, in a cleared strip in a corn field, we saw three hens, with a rooster nearby, in no hurry to walk away into crop cover. You have to wonder, were there little ones (which we did not see) with the hens?”
Indeed, beyond the narrow, grassy ditches on that stretch was nothing but tall corn and healthy soybean stands. Great for crop yields, but offering no year-round cover to help hide from predators, provide critical insect and seed forage or help pheasants survive often brutal winters.
We had tallied a couple other pheasants in the middle of the route. As a kicker, we marked four gray partridge and two cottontail rabbits. Quail and jackrabbits are the other upland game species surveyed.
The routes are run by DNR wildlife workers and conservation officers through the first two weeks of August. Each begins at dawn, with similar conditions; heavy humidity, little wind and mostly clear skies; conditions which bring pheasants out of the gravel roadside to dry off. With over 200 routes statewide, the results are varied. Combined, however, they provide a year to year index of what bird hunters should see, when over 50,000 step into the field each fall.
That number used to be higher. But so were bird counts. In the 1980s, with large swaths of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres on the landscape, Iowa’s annual harvest topped a million. And in the ‘good ol days’–the Soil Bank years in the 1950s and 60s–it was even higher; with hunting parties stretched across the mix of corn stubble and grassy fields.
The higher count does not guarantee a banner upland bird season. That is why over 200 similar routes are combined with the mix, to average things out. Winter snowfall plays a big part in hen survival. Then, spring precipitation determines nesting success and chick survival.
In 2015, the average pheasant count per route statewide was 24, up from 17.5 the year before. With the 2016 count down slightly—but remaining steady–Bogenschutz expects a stronger harvest, provided hunters return. Iowa’s 2016 pheasant season opens October 29, running through January 10. The fall harvest forecast is posted at www.iowadnr.gov .