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More pheasants, more hunters expected for 2020

August bird count in Iowa is higher than 10-year average

Pheasant chicks are spotted on a central Iowa roadside during the August 2020 pheasant survey. (Photo by Joe Wilkinson)
Pheasant chicks are spotted on a central Iowa roadside during the August 2020 pheasant survey. (Photo by Joe Wilkinson)
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This may be a banner year for pheasant hunting in Iowa with both the number of birds and the number of hunters predicted to be the highest in a decade.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ annual roadside survey of pheasants showed an 18 percent increase in 2020 over 2019. The average number pheasants spotted per route — 20.3 — was higher in the early August survey than the state’s 10-year average of 15.3.

“Overall, pheasant hunters in the Hawkeye state should expect significantly better pheasant numbers in 2020,” the Iowa DNR reported. “Six of the nine survey regions reported pheasant averages of 20-plus per route. Iowa has not had six regions report 20-plus pheasant averages since 2007.”

Since 1962, the Iowa DNR has been doing a roadside survey of ringneck pheasants and other animals, including bobwhite quail, gray partridges and cottontail rabbits. Surveyors drive 6,000 miles over the first two weeks in August, covering 215 routes of at least 30 miles each across the state, said Todd Bogenschutz, the department’s upland wildlife research biologist.

Surveyors go out on dewy mornings because pheasants don’t like to be wet and hens usually take their chicks out to gravel roads to avoid the dew, Bogenschutz said.

“It should be a morning with a real heavy dew, no winds and sunny,” he said.

Eugene Klonglan, an Iowa State University professor, standardized the survey method in 1962 when he said pheasant counts should be done in August, before the chicks get too big to distinguish from adult birds and before crops are harvested.

Pheasant populations are higher this year because the 2020 winter had mild temperatures and little snowfall, leading to a higher hen survival rate, Bogenschutz said. The dry spring made for more successful nesting.

Eastern Iowa’s 2020 pheasant survey showed the biggest increases over 2019, with a 163 percent increase in southeast Iowa, an 115 percent hike in northeast Iowa and a 55 percent increase in east central Iowa. Western Iowa’s pheasant numbers were on par with 2019, but it could be because there was significantly less dew on August mornings because of drought conditions in that part of the state, Bogenschutz said.

“We think the counts are probably a little better than the survey indicates in the western parts of the state,” he said.

The number of pheasant hunters in Iowa has declined over the years as bird counts have dwindled because of lack of habitat and as families have more competition for their free time, Bogenschutz said.

Resident hunting license numbers fell 8.6 percent from 152,147 in 2015 to 138,983 in 2019. But the Iowa DNR sold 20 to 30 percent more fishing licenses and turkey hunting licenses this year as people look for outdoor activities they can do while remaining socially distant to halt the spread of COVID-19, Bogenschutz said.

“We could see 60,000,” he said of Iowa pheasant licenses this year. “This would be our highest number in a decade. It seems like there are a lot of people are having a lot of free time home with the family.”

In Iowa, pheasant hunters need a hunting/habitat license, which costs $35 a year for residents and $144 for nonresidents. The rooster pheasant season is from Oct. 31 through Jan. 10.

Because 2020 has been fairly dry, Bogenschutz predicts many farmers will harvest early, which makes it easier for hunters to spot pheasants.

The Aug. 10 derecho that cut a path of hurricane-force winds across Iowa may affect the timing of the harvest for farmers who saw acres and acres of corn blown down. Some may wait to see if they can stand up the corn to harvest it with standard equipment. Others, worried that the corn knocked down could go bad, may try to harvest it early.

Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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