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Finding a habitat balance is tied to farm programs

January 9, 2010
By Garry Brandenburg

PHEASANTS can endure a lot of adverse conditions. They have the ability to overcome many obstacles if enough long term habitat can be provided. However, long, cold winter snows, cool spring weather with heavy rains just add to the misery. There is no doubt that pheasants are being tested to the limits. They may be down but they are not out.

Let's take a trip back in time to the early 1900s. From captive flocks that escaped, the population found Iowa's small farm environment very friendly. Birds were multiplying very well. Iowa Conservation Commission staff was taking note and was promoting a program for farmers to collect pheasant eggs, pay them one dollar per dozen for their efforts and use the hatchlings for statewide stocking.

Can you imagine farmers in the 1920s calling the pheasant a pest. They did. Excessive crop damage was the complaint signed by over 150 Hancock County landowners. In 1941, a 4,900 acre area in Winnebago County was selected as a study site for pheasants. On these private lands, a census determined that over 400 pheasants existed per square mile. This was the peak year for the glamorous game bird from Asia.

Article Photos

Pheasants can make it if the habitat is available. The situation at the present time is the result of many factors: a big decline in CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) acres, long, cold winter weather, and cool wet spring nesting conditions. Visualize this: A 300 mile strip of land from Davenport to Council Bluffs eight miles wide filled with nothing but grass. This amount of land, well over 500,000 acres, that once served many purposes for improved water quality, soil conservation and wildlife cover, is gone, the result of expired farm program contracts. Today's photograph was made last year at an oasis of habitat in the middle of surrounding crop fields.

If one follows the numbers in the Winnebago study area during the 1950s, 60s, 70s, 80s and to the present, a general decline of birds was taking place. A bump up happened in mid 1950 to 1963 when a farm program called Soil Bank had its biggest impact. The USDA program was on the way out and by 1965, only one-tenth of the acreage was still in the program compared to 1960. But the overall trend line was set in place, a declining line as small farms got larger and larger. Land use patterns changed to more row crops. Weedy fence lines disappeared faster than a magicians rabbit in a hat.

Farmers, my father being just one of many in Bremer County, were typical of farmers across the entire Midwest. The Soil Bank program to pay land operators to idle crop acres was on the way out. He had to make a living for his family on his mere 160 acres. Times were changing and commodity crops for the market and his dairy livestock operation dictated what one had to do to bring in the cash flow.

Pheasants were still relatively abundant on the farm where I grew up in the 50s and 60s. As a farm kid living the rural life, I just took it for granted that pheasants had always been there and always would be. I was a carefree youth with a 20 gauge single shot shotgun plus a farm dog mutt of mixed heritage and both of us enjoyed chasing pheasants. I had no need for deep thinking responsibilities about any government programs and their implications for the future.

The Winnebago study area of 1941 showed about 60 percent of the land had nesting cover. By 1980, only 9.7 percent remained. Any remaining wetlands or pastures also disappeared. In today's world, farmers are still trying to scratch a living off the land using every tool they can to help put money in the bank to help pay off operating loans. It is not easy or recommended for the faint of heart. The problem of how to find a balance where wildlife can thrive in an otherwise intense landscape of row crops is a tough nut to crack.

CRP acres topped out in Iowa at 2.2 million acres in 1993. It is below 1.7 million acres now. In September of 2009, 85,000 more CRP acres went out of contract. Another 230,000 acres will go under by 2012. That 8 mile wide swath across the state is growing wider. Will there be a new replacement of some type for CRP? Yes, there may be but at what scale? Private land policies of the USDA are key to retaining and developing grassland habitat.

I urge the readers of this column to study intently the story in the DNR's Iowa Outdoors magazine's Jan-Feb issue pages 52-57. It does the job of informing anyone who reads it what has transpired in the Hawkeye State. Look at the graph on page 57. Note the trend lines. They speak volumes about the realities of today.


PHEASANT FEST is a Midwest event that rotates its venues from state to state. It is IOWA's turn this year on February 26-28th at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines. Pheasants are such a popular game bird that sportsmen and women have historically spent huge sums of money to pursue this magnificent game bird. The show will have lots of display booths and informative programs about bird dogs, hunting opportunities, habitat planning, wild game cooking, wildlife art and more. Landowners can also be offered free habitat consultation services to learn what can be done in today's world with existing USDA programs. Check out the programs at


BIRD COUNTING locally has been completed for the annual Christmas time bird count across the nation. Marshalltown bird club members did their part last week. More than 2,200 birds encompassing 30 species were observed at backyard feeding stations and on three rural routes around Marshalltown. A big thank you to all who participated.

Here is a summary of some but not all of what was seen in the skies, on the water or on the snow covered land. There were many common birds such as bluejays, cardinals, juncos, english sparrows and woodpeckers. A few common grackles were still in the area. So too were goldfinches, house finches, chickadees, nuthatches, doves, pigeons, starlings, crows and raptors like kestrels, red-tailed hawks, sharp-shinned hawks, cooper's hawk and bald eagles. Pheasants also graced the list with more than 130 birds.

Christmas Bird Count data is shared with the Iowa Ornithologists Union to attempt to paint a picture of wintering birds from year to year. Trend lines of population swings up, down or steady can be important indicators for biologists working on wildlife habitat programs.

Regarding one specific type of bird counting, GRAMMER GROVE, a Marshall County Conservation Board area located a few miles southwest of Liscomb, is the regular haunt for avid hawk watchers. Mark Proescholdt is the one who keeps the records of raptors migrating south over the Iowa River valley each fall. In the fall of 2009, between August 22nd to December 19th, Mark's records tallied 2,702 hawks, falcons, eagles or turkey vultures as they migrated. Total hours of observation was 250. Mark was assisted by three other observers Eugene and Eloise Armstrong and Ken Gregory.

The biggest numbers this past year were broad-winged hawks at 1,417. On one good day, September 19th to be exact, 348 broad-wings were seen. The other great day was September 27th when 200 were added to the count. When circling tiers of these hawks are on the move, you have to be there to witness this spectacular free show by Mother Nature.

On Mark's list of raptors are Bald Eagles - 286, golden eagles - 2, Turkey vultures - 247, Osprey - 12, Northern Harrier - 14, Sharp-shinned hawks - 306, Copper's hawks - 66, Red-shouldered hawks - 5, Red-tailed hawks at 309, Rough-legged hawks - 1, Kestrels -10, Merlins - 3, and Pergrines - 7.

The bird watching hobby/fascination/dedicated pass time is an example of how to create quality outdoor time by ones own initiative. Congratulations to Mark and his crew for carrying on the tradition at Grammer Grove's 'hawk mountain.'


Once again the weather has forced the cancellation of MCCB's Winterfest at Green Castle today. Some years it has been warm weather that melted the snow or no snow to melt. This year there is plenty of snow but bitter cold temperatures make it unsafe to be outdoors for any length of time. When the temperatures moderate, I encourage you to go out on your own and enjoy the available winter outdoor activities at one of MCCB's county parks.

You can still take advantage of the indoor programs offered by the MCCB this month. Bring your lunch and join the Brown Bag Bunch at the Conservation Center at GrimesFarm on Tuesday, January 19 from 11:30 a.m. 1:00 p.m. for Utah! by Ed Siems. Enjoy this photographic trip to this beautiful state.

Have you ever wondered where the monarch butterflies go in winter? On Thursday, January 21 at 7:00 p.m., join MCCB naturalist Diane Pixler at the GrimesFarm Conservation Center as she presents highlights of her trip to Mexico to see millions of over-wintering monarchs.


For your funny bone: A potato baked on a campfire for one hour makes an excellent side dish. A potato baked for three hours makes an excellent hockey puck.


Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at PO Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.



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