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Pheasant forecast doesn’t look too pretty 

September 11, 2010

PHEASANTS in Iowa have had a rough go of it during the past several years. Winter weather conditions were bad. Spring weather with cool temps and rain were bad. Habitat losses with reduced CRP acres added insult to injury. It is no wonder then that the August standardized roadside counts found another significant drop in pheasants observed.

Now, before the coffee shop biologists try to solve all the world's problems, keep these facts in mind. We hunt rooster pheasants, not hens. Pheasants are very hardy, if given half a chance to survive. Mankind can and does help with habitat plantings that incorporate grass cover for nesting with food sources close to heavy winter escape cover. We just need more of these habitat blocks in large enough quantity to make a difference. USDA farm programs do make a difference if there is adequate funding for set aside programs. Iowa's pheasant future is primarily tied to long-term USDA programs or lack thereof.

One can't entirely blame the farmer who is trying to survive financially. He or she looks at the market forces for grain commodities and determines what their bottom line is likely to be. And with Iowa's rich soils and top quality ability to produce crops, the cards are stacked. Remember too that the way farming is done today compared to the average farm of the 1950s, is a contrast of huge changes. Gone are small fields, brushy fence rows, pasture and hay land. Mechanical cultivation used to try to kill weeds until the crop got too tall.Whatever happened to the crop after that was up to Mom Nature.

Article Photos

Pheasant numbers are way down in Iowa due to the primary causes of four consecutive severe winters with more than 30 inches of snow, much reduced habitat as Conservation Reserve Program contracts expired, and wet cool spring weather. This was a deadly combination of factors that hit hard. Iowa tends to see increases in pheasant numbers with mild winters and warm, dry springs. Today’s photo was made under controlled conditions in February 2009.

This author has seen several pheasant hens with their broods of chicks this summer. Of course my observations were not scientific; I was just in the right place at the right time to confirm that some hen pheasants did make it through those tough weather conditions of last winter and this spring.Official roadside counts, 218 of them to be exact, each 30 miles long, are the same routes used year after year.

Biologists start at dawn after a night of heavy dew and calm winds. Birds will likely be near the roadsides to soak up sunshine and dry off. That is how the count takes place, not just for pheasants but also for bobwhite quail, gray partridge, cottontail and jackrabbits.

Information from the USDA shows that between 1990 and 2005, Iowa lost 2,496 square miles of pheasant habitat, an amount of land equal to an eight mile wide strip of land between Davenport and Council Bluffs. On Sept. 30, contracts on another 117,204 acres (about 183 square miles) will expire. A new CRP signup was just completed, the first one since 2006, which may mitigate the loss somewhat.

Statewide, the pheasant index is 11.1 birds per route to set a new all time low count. The previous low was in the year 2000 at 13.9 birds per route. This year's index is 56 percent below Iowa's 10 year average. The decline was expected given the severity of Iowa's past winter. From December 1, 2009 to February 28th, 2010, Iowa recorded the snowiest in its history dating back to the earliest weather records of 1887. In 50 years of monitoring pheasants, the overall population has only increased twice with more than 27 inches of snow. Pheasant numbers have never increased following winters with greater than 31 inches of snow. Iowa has had 30, 42, 32 and 47 inches of snow respectively during the last four years.

Mother Nature added insult to injury with cool wet weather this spring. Flooding in 2008 and 2010 didn't help either along with cool wet conditions in 2009. With these conditions, it was virtually impossible for hen pheasants to bring off a successful nest. Yet, in spite of it all, some did. Those surviving hens will need all the help they can get. A bounce back is possible if Iowa's CRP acres are managed well for all the benefits that USDA program entails. A bounce back did happen in 1984 and 2001 and the population noticeably rebounded two to three years later with mild winters and dry springs.

There will still be a pheasant season beginning on Oct. 30. Fewer rooster pheasants will be taken. There will be enough roosters in the spring to mate with the hens. The bounce back of the population requires lots of help from good weather and good habitat. Pheasants are tough ... but they need a good break.


TURKEYS have made it through the nesting season with some successes. While on a recent walk-about at the Iowa River Wildlife Area near the Sand Road, this author was hiking through the tall grasses adjacent to an old fence row.At a distance of about 10 feet, a hen turkey abruptly took flight and surprised me quite a bit. As my heart rate slowed, I watched her and about 6 of her half grown offspring fly away. I was at the right place at the right time. I know there are more turkeys at this location because of their footprints left in muddy openings. It is good to know they are survivors.


The first entry in the "WEIRD BIRD NEST" unofficial list is from Jim Hulin. He had a wren build a nest in the open mouth of a fish head. He had caught a big northern, cut out the fillets and nailed just the head to an outbuilding. The open mouth of the dried up northern suited the wren just fine. She built her nest inside its jaws.


Wet weather of this past summer has filled many ponds and low lying areas. Lots of insects use these sites including mosquitoes. However, dragonfly nymphs are in the water too. They are totally aquatic feeding on other insects including mosquito larvae. When the dragonfly nymph grows to its adult flying stage, it continues to patrol wetland areas and eat mosquitoes as it flies. So for all the sighting of dragonflies of late, just be glad they are out there. There are about 450 species of dragonflies in North America. Most are small with wingspans of up to 3 inches. A fossilized dragonfly from 250 million years ago had a 28 inch wingspan! Yikes.


The Marshall County Conservation Board's HALLOWEEN HIKE is in late October. It will be held Oct. 23 at the GrimesFarm & Conservation Center. Diane Pixler, Naturalist, is in need of about 10 lanterns, the type that uses a small propane bottle for fuel as these are easier to keep lighted if the weather during the night hike is windy. If you have one that you are willing to loan to her, call her at 752-5490. Write your name on the lantern with a permanent marker. She can also advise you of volunteer positions that are in need of being filled. Thanks.


Some September activities to put on your calendar: Monarch Tagging on Tuesday from 6 to 7 p.m. at the GrimesFarm & Conservation Center. Bring a net if you have one. Some nets are available.

On Friday at 8 p.m. the Amateur Astronomers of Central Iowa will host a program on the moon at Green Castle Recreation Area with public viewing at the observatory to follow. For more information contact Jim Bonser at 641/751-8744.

Celebrate Oktemberfest and participate in pioneer crafts and skills at Prairie Heritage Day at the Grimes Farm on Sept. 25 from 2 to 5 p.m.

Bring your lunch or snack, a lawn chair, and binoculars and join the naturalist for a Hawk Watch at Grammer Grove on Sept. 29 from 10 a.m. to noon. Mark Proescholdt will help to identify the different hawks migrating down the Iowa River corridor.


For your funny bone: Do you know why birds fly south each fall? It is too far to walk.


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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