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A pheasant count for the ages

Wildside column: But, alas, it looks like a down year when real count released

A young of the year rooster pheasant strolls Monday (Aug. 19) along a Buchanan County soybean field. (Orlan Love/correspondent)
A young of the year rooster pheasant strolls Monday (Aug. 19) along a Buchanan County soybean field. (Orlan Love/correspondent)

My unscientific August roadside pheasant count bodes well for a good hunting season.

On one early morning last week, while driving a three-mile detour on gravel roads, I counted three broods for a total of 25 pheasants.

I initially mistook the first brood, which consisted of six roosters in gaudy plumage, for adults that had survived the previous hunting season and winter. But when they flew, their minimal tail feathers and peeps rather than cackles gave them away as young of the year.

The other two broods, half grown with hens and roosters as yet indistinguishable, were more in keeping with what I would expect to see in early August.

Extrapolated for the DNR’s standard 30-mile route, the index for my count is an astronomical 250 pheasants. That’s more than 10 times higher than last year’s statewide index of 21 birds per 30-mile route and more than three times higher than the record statewide index, 79.4, in 1964.

The actual, yet-to-be released 2019 index, the best indicator of hunting season prospects, likely will be down from last year, according to Todd Bogenschutz, the DNR upland game biologist who coordinates the count.

During the first half of August, DNR staff drive 218 30-mile routes on gravel roads at dawn on mornings with heavy dew — conditions that bring hens and their broods to the roads to dry off, facilitating the count.

Bogenschutz said Tuesday he’s still awaiting numbers from 25 routes. Because the data is managed electronically, he said he hasn’t yet seen any numbers.

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“Anecdotally, staff seem to indicate (the 2019 index will be) down or perhaps similar to last year,” he said.

Any decline in the statewide index will be attributable to unfavorable late winter and spring weather conditions.

Barely noticeable through the Jan. 10 end of the pheasant season, winter arrived at mid-month with deep snow, howling winds and bitter temperatures. Surviving hens then contended with a cold, wet nesting season.

“Based on the weather and the formulas we use, pheasant numbers ought to be down this year,” Bogenschutz said.

Seeing all those pheasants in a concentrated area last week took me back to 1962, the year the DNR began its August roadside counts. The statewide index that year was 65.9 birds per route — the fourth-highest ever recorded behind 79.4 in 1964, 67.0 in 1980 and 66.2 in 1970.

There was no harvest estimate in 1962, but the estimate for 1963, when the statewide roadside index was 53.6 birds per 30-mile route, was 1.935 million roosters, an all-time high.

Last year’s harvest, an estimated 320,000 roosters, up from 221,000 the preceding year, was the highest total since 2008.

In 1962, before the advent of herbicide, giant machinery and confined livestock, before the widespread adoption of hybrid seed and drainage tile, the average Iowa farm, with its fields of oats, hay and pasture (rather than soybeans), its brushy fence rows, cattail sloughs and foxtail-filled cornfields, was a pheasant haven.

How fun it must have been to conduct roadside counts then, how fun it was to hunt them.

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