Wet spring may hamper pheasant nest success
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By Tim Spielman, Associate Editor, MN Outdoor News
Thursday, June 12, 2008 4:05 PM CDT
Madelia, Minn. As another heavy spring rain pelted southern Minnesota last week, DNR pheasant researcher Kurt Haroldson lamented the continuing cold and wet weather’s effect on the state’s pheasant population.
’With pheasants, at least, it’s been a less-than-ideal spring in terms of the weather,’ he said. ’Generally what we want (for ground-nesting birds) is warm, dry weather.’
While a fairly mild winter ensured the survival of a good number of hen pheasants, Haroldson said they’ll all likely be counted on, along with their ability to re-nest.
If wet weather dooms a clutch of pheasant eggs, hens will re-nest as often as needed, until it’s too late in the season. ’But once they’re hatched, they’re done,’ he said; if hatched poults perish, this is no more re-nesting.
One fairly reliable barometer of the extent of cold and wetness in the spring is corn-planting, which Haroldson said is behind pace this year.
Haroldson hoped for some of that warm, dry weather as the peak of the hatch arrived over the weekend. Weather conditions, he said, don’t seem to affect pheasant breeding, nesting, and the hatch. It appears to be more a matter of day length.
Last week, Haroldson said water was standing in some farm fields in the Madelia area in southern Minnesota. That’s a bad sign, he said, because wet fields typically mean even wetter grasslands. Grasslands usually include the slower-to-drain, ’marginal’ croplands of the south. Further, water runs off grasslands slower than it filters into the tilled soil of ag fields.
’The eggs would be floating in some of the wetter areas,’ Haroldson said.
Cold weather affects young pheasants in a number of ways. Young birds have little ability to keep warm, and cold delays insect hatches, upon which the poults rely, Haroldson said.
The DNR has no solid data regarding pheasant numbers and nesting success until August roadside surveys are completed.
’Right now, things aren’t looking real good,’ Haroldson said.
Haroldson said there also are habitat concerns in the pheasant range, with many farmers considering discontinuing their federal Conservation Reserve Program contracts in the future, thanks to high crop prices. If crop production due to poor weather is down this year (which some have speculated it might be), further pressure would be applied to CRP, he said, possibly in the form of an ’early-out’ option offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
It’s been a wet spring in the Dakotas, too.
South Dakota has experienced rainfall far exceeding average in some locations, said Chad Switzer, senior upland game biologist in Huron, S.D.
While it may have a detrimental effect on pheasants, it was welcomed in many parts of the state that have experienced drought for the better part of the last half decade, he said.
And, like in Minnesota, there were plenty of birds available come spring, even though hunters in South Dakota harvested more than 2 million birds last year.
The state Game, Fish and Parks Department conducts a ’winter sex ratio count’ that indicated about one cock per two hens, Switzer said.
’It didn’t even look like we had a (hunting) season last year,’ he said.
The pre-season pheasant estimate for South Dakota last fall was about 12 million birds, the highest estimate in half a century.
Switzer said the spring rains have been for the most part statewide in South Dakota. He said they might have some effect on the pheasant population, but ’they’ll pull through fine.’
Switzer said a bigger threat to pheasants in the state continues to be the rapid loss of CRP acres, though the state recently has submitted a proposal to the USDA Farm Service Agency office for a 100,000-acre Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (state/federal) project, which could make more land available (via the state’s walk-in hunter access program) later this year, or in 2009.
In Iowa, pheasants this spring have had to deal with weather much like the rest of the Midwest ’ cold and wet.
’It’s been awhile since we’ve had a really great year for pheasant production,’ said Todd Bogenschutz, Iowa DNR wildlife biologist, in a DNR press statement. ’Pheasants endured a long, hard winter last year. Snowfall averaged 45 inches statewide. Parts of eastern Iowa were especially hard hit, with places like Dubuque receiving up to 85 inches of snow. Those kinds of extreme weather conditions make it tough for pheasants. In some regions, loss of hens ran high.
’What pheasants really needed this year was an ideal spring nesting season to make up for those hen losses,’ he said. ’Instead, they received cool temps and the second wettest April in 136 years of record keeping. When it comes to spring nesting conditions, it doesn’t get much worse.’
As with other states, Iowa, too, is facing a significant loss of CRP acres, as farmers, reacting to high crop prices, choose not to re-enroll in the program and convert grasslands to croplands.