DES MOINES - With a little cold weather finally surrounding us, it seems a little more like hunting season. However, as 200,000 pheasant hunters head into the field, they still could find something …
DES MOINES - With a little cold weather finally surrounding us, it seems a little more like hunting season. However, as 200,000 pheasant hunters head into the field, they still could find something missing — the pheasants.
Iowa’s crisp fall mornings seem custom-made for taking the field during pheasant season. The cackle of a flustered ringneck creates electricity in the chilly air as you lead him on his low, hard escape route. You squeeze the trigger and…
Hit or miss? This fall, you may not get as many chances to find out.
Mention Iowa to a hunter just about anywhere in the U.S. and you’ll hear ‘pheasant’. Our number one status will be threatened this fall, though. Weather and a loss of habitat have teamed up to bring pheasant numbers down.
“Hunters had better be prepared,” warns upland game biologist Todd Bogenschutz of the Iowa DNR. “They are probably not going to see as many birds as they saw last year. They are down quite a bit.”
Statewide, the state index shows an average of 30.1 pheasants surveyed during August roadside counts. That is a drop of 34.5 percent compared to last year, when the typical count averaged 46. Basically, there will be two birds in ‘99 for every three birds you may have seen last year. In the DNR’s east central district, which includes Johnson, Linn, Benton, Iowa and other counties at the east end of Iowa’s traditional ‘Pheasant Belt’, the index is slightly improved; 37.6 birds. That’s still a 30.3 percent drop from the 53.9 reported last year. Of nine districts, only southwest Iowa’s count rose (from 17.0 to 17.1).
Bogenschutz has warned for a couple years that the loss of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres would catch up with us. With that critical cover down about 800,000 acres from a peak of 2,200,000 acres in the early 1990s, nesting pheasants had their guard down. Torrential rains this spring threw the knockdown punch.
Rain turned the first two weeks of June; the peak of the pheasant hatch, into a soggy mess. Hens losing their nests due to wet conditions do re-nest but many lost that second nest, too. On Iowa’s August roadside survey, very small birds were seen in some areas, indicating third nesting attempts. Each re-nesting effort, though, yields fewer eggs and fewer surviving poults. Two years ago, hunters in Iowa shot 1.34 million birds. A year ago, it was 1.2 million. Bogenshutz’s forecast for ‘99? “It will be between 900,000 and 1 million. With a real good weather forecast, there will still be an opportunity to harvest one million.”
Those grassy waterways and picked cornfields might look inviting. And that’s where many ringnecks will be concentrated. The problem is, that’s about all they have in much of Iowa. Pheasants prefer large grassy tracts-especially thick, native grasses-for nesting, cover and avoiding predators. They had it with CRP setaside acres. Now, the cover in many counties is reduced to road rights-of-way, field edges and a few waterways. Biologists often refer to the narrow strips of vegetation as ‘predator magnets’. A fox, coyote…or cat…can hunt them much more efficiently than they could an 80-acre native grass field.
“Our five year study in northern Iowa showed 7 out of 10 nests in CRP fields had successful hatches. In road ditches, it was just 4 out of 10”, explains Bogenshutz. “That adds up in a hurry.”
Most hunters don’t worry about having to shoot their limits each time out. If that is the case, they could find that, in 1999, patience is indeed a virtue.
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