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home : columns : columns April 30, 2016

2/6/2013 11:10:00 AM
Consider the plight of our farmland pheasants

Ron Kuecker
Outdoors Columnist

I walked out onto the now depleted corn food plot a few days ago. The pail of corn dangling from each arm was to feed what had been a flock of some 25-30 pheasants a month ago. As I scattered the golden kernels I hoped the good birds would get some of them before the herd of 40-60 deer wintering in the area found it.
The corn hit the earth and as it did the grain danced across a solid sheet of ice.
An ice storm had hit our area the weekend of Jan. 27 leaving a 1/3-of-an-inch of ice behind its biting southeast wind. Walking across the parking lot at Hy-Vee was difficult for us human types, can you imagine being a pheasant out searching and scratching for the little bit of feed left behind by last fall's harvest.
Helpless and yes, almost hopeless is the feeling I had. A single person, or 40-50 judging by the signups at the Minnesota DNR headquarters in Windom where I got the corn, walking out on an iced over, mostly barren landscape trying to save a few birds. Hopefully some would remain for next spring to mate, hatch and rear some chicks in an ever more forbidding environment.
Judging by the tracks in the very light snow that fell from a few passing snow showers, the flock that had been visiting now numbered only five or so. I'm sure that many of the others had struck off across the open fields looking for food. I hope they found some. But equally sure, I am, that some have likely perished even in this winter some might consider not too bad for them.
Ag land birds
The plight of the ag land pheasant, and truthfully, that is the only place they have historically flourished, is not good. I saw it coming even before the flocks were decimated by the winters of 2009-10 and 2010-11. Then a few cold wet springs with a narrow window of opportunity for reproduction came along to further the problem.
The first thing I had seen was "unhappy roosters" in the spring. Yes, that's just a figure of speech but what I mean is spring crow counts were down dramatically and the number of hens per rooster was one to two rather than the three to five that indicates every thing is okay.
Well as they say, it is what it is, get used to it. But I can't. Seeing those big gawdy birds all winter and spring, then walking the fields in the fall flushing and downing a few in front of the brown dog is part of my life.
Or, as my brother says from his home near Watertown, SD, "The future of pheasants is even bad in our area. I might just as well move to Las Vegas and hunt western quail where there is no snow and ice. Pheasants are the reason I retired in South Dakota".
As for me, I've been through these ups and downs of pheasant populations numerous times since I first started hunting them 50 years ago. But its different this time. The soil bank disappeared in the 60's, small grain production succumbed to corn and bean row crops. And now, even the pheasant saving federal Conservation Reserve Program is disappearing in front of the grain for energy juggernaut we now see.
I don't really like the idea of diminished expectations but it seems regarding pheasants we are at that point.
Habitat, habitat, habitat
That's the cry of habitat oriented species groups such as Pheasants Forever, just as location, location, location are the passwords to business success.
Pheasants Forever is holding their national convention mid-month this year in Minneapolis. They are the premier group when it comes to saving our pheasant hunting legacy. Without them I don't know where we would be.
Yet, sometimes, I think even they are a bit off target. They seem to be in a prairie grass mode with too little emphasis on the year-a-round needs for the birds. Contiguous large fields of grass or corridors are being emphasized over areas of interspersion with farmed cropland.
That interspersion of cover types is exactly what was explained in the November/December issue of The Kansas Wildlife and Parks magazine. An article in that issue, "Fields of Dreams" describes very well what former Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks retired research biologist Randy Rogers has done with his land in that state. He plants long narrow rows of crops next to grassy cover of types conducive to pheasants. He creates miles and miles of habitat islands and borders complete with shrub thickets some game managers are cutting down or burning in the name of habitat improvement.
Sure it's warmer there than here but even Iowa and Nebraska are suffering from the same problems we are in Minnesota.
Paradigm shift
We are in a habitat rut and it's something that isn't necessarily working well for the long term. We've got to change the current paradigm to fit the 21st century. It can't be the same old, same old. Plant tall prairie grass, control the weeds, burn every three to five years, cut down the trees and leave the resident wildlife with nothing to eat from December thru March.
I've been talking like this for a long time only it's from such a small stage here at the Citizen. Now on one of the biggest stages of all, the pages of the Journal of Wildlife Management, a leading authority from the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. Texas A&M speaks out. My favorite sentence in his 12 pages of writing was "we are seemingly stuck in a rut on our habitat studies".
Hey Pheasants Forever guys, habitat managers, private landowners, read up, listen up. The pheasants are waiting and we have to do it on fewer acres. We no longer live in a prairie grass ecosystem. And, besides, pheasants were never prairie birds.
As one of my friends once said, "it seems we are managing for prairie chickens and there aren't any here."

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