Outdoors

Late winter snow, cold will dampen pheasant hunt

Wildside column: Birds have hard time finding habitat in snow-covered fields

Drifting snow on Feb. 18, 2018 clogs a Buchanan County roadside ditch that earlier in the year provided ample cover for pheasants. (Orlan Love/correspondent)
Drifting snow on Feb. 18, 2018 clogs a Buchanan County roadside ditch that earlier in the year provided ample cover for pheasants. (Orlan Love/correspondent)
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Forty-five inches of snow in 45 days (or whatever the current running total may be — I’ve lost track), has chilled the prospects for the 2019 pheasant crop.

“Let’s put it this way: Pheasant numbers will be down significantly this year,” said Todd Bogenschutz, upland game biologist for the Department of Natural Resources.

How significantly remains to be seen and will depend on when the snowy siege abates.

Severe winters reduce the carry-over of the spring breeding population, which translates to fewer pheasants in the year ahead.

Pheasants, perhaps the most vulnerable of the state’s game species to winter weather, seldom freeze or starve to death, though many did in the bitter winter of 2000-2001, when incipient glaciers covered much of the state.

Their winter mortality rates, typically from exposure or predation, correlate with the number of days snow covers their habitat.

DNR analysis has found pheasant numbers decline whenever the statewide average snowfall exceeds 31 inches.

Through a snow-free November, December and the first half of January, pheasants could find adequate cover almost anywhere — in road ditches, fence rows, creek buffers and blocs of Conservation Reserve Program grasslands.

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Since mid-January, however, a succession of deep snows, interspersed with little melting, has obliterated all but the thickest cover, which is too scarce and widely scattered for most pheasants to find.

In my personal locale (southern Buchanan County), by my own personal measurements, we recorded just short of 2 feet in the nine days preceding my writing this on Wednesday.

Pheasants’ impending decline will reverse recent gains accruing through a succession of mild-to-average winters.

Going into this winter, Iowa’s pheasant population was at its second-highest level in 10 years, according to data from the DNR’s August roadside survey, which found a statewide average of 21 birds per 30-mile route, up 40 percent from the preceding year’s 15.

Hunter success during the season that ended Jan. 10 reflected the population surge predicted by the roadside survey data.

Avid pheasant hunter Greg Schmitt, a DNR private lands biologist who helps landowners expand and enhance wildlife habitat, said he saw and harvested more birds this year than ever before.

Having lived a lot longer than Greg, I would not go that far, but I would say it was as good as any pheasant season this millennium.

As tiresome and at times dangerous as the unrelenting snow may be to us shovelers and motorists, at least we don’t have to live in it.

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“Dark birds on a white background — that’s the big thing,” Schmitt said. “They are out there 24-7, exposed to the elements and predators.”

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