The Ottumwa Courier

June 19, 2013

Pheasant population outlook 'dismal'

Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA — Hunters may have some trouble finding pheasants this fall.

Pheasant numbers are expected to decline this year, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

"Following a harsh winter, which is what we had, combined either singly or in combination with cool, wet springs results in very low production," said Wapello County Conservation Board director Kurt Baker. "One of those things alone can diminish annual production, but when we have both of those things, which it seems like we have every year anymore, it's a double whammy."

The ever-declining pheasant population is "dismal," Baker said.

"For upland game hunters, it's going to be very tough, very frustrating," he said.

There will be some small pockets of the birds, but those pockets are critically dependent on high-quality habitat.

"Without nesting, brooding and winter cover ... without those three components, numbers are going to be way down," he said.

Anytime rainfall exceeds 8 inches during the nesting period in April and May, production substantially declines.

As of Monday, Wapello County had already seen 25.39 inches of rainfall this year, according to the National Weather Service in Des Moines, just 2 inches less than the total rainfall for the entirety of 2012.

Wet springs prove troublesome for pheasants because often, their only nesting cover is in waterways, so when there's excessive rainfall, their nests are flooded and destroyed and the hen has to re-nest.

"And right after the eggs hatch, these things are little cotton balls, with downy feathers that absorb moisture," Baker said. "Those first two weeks, they're extremely open to chilling, hypothermia and then death."

Baker wonders how much longer the pheasant population can survive the repeating harsh winters and rainy springs.

"If you stack three- and four-year spans together where you have harsher winters and cool, wet springs, it's hard for any production to occur," he said. "It could knock this population down even further, and that would be pretty much catastrophic to the remaining pheasants in southeast Iowa."

Pheasant hunting season begins the last Saturday in October and runs through Jan. 10, according to Iowa Code.

While we have no control over the weather, Baker said there are steps private landowners can take to ensure the survival of the pheasant population.

"If they have idle land, they can plant a diverse, native prairie mix," he said. "And people need to stay out of waterways and ditches. Much of their nesting occurs in linear corridors, roadsides and waterways. A pheasant is either mowed over, killing her, or it chases her off, causes damage to the nest, then she abandons it and has to re-nest."

Baker suggests holding off on mowing roadsides and waterways until after July 15, which marks the end of the pheasant nesting season.

IDNR upland wildlife biologist Todd Bogenschutz said this marked the wettest spring for pheasants since they were established in Iowa in the 1920s.

In August, the IDNR will conduct its "roadside survey" to gauge the pheasant population. These numbers will be posted at by mid-September.

Every year, the IDNR makes predictions on the pheasant population based on winter and spring weather, and their predictions have come true the last eight out of 10 years.

— To follow reporter Chelsea Davis on Twitter, head to @ChelseaLeeDavis.