Counting Pheasants: Minnesota’s Roadside Survey

f9572f99-7568-45af-bab9-0d517a608714 It’s 4 a.m. on August 3rd and the dogs are still sleeping soundly as I creep past their kennels with my truck keys and a cup of coffee in hand. Koda, the veteran bird dog in my household, opens one eye to make sure that blaze orange, camouflage, or a gun case is not in tow as I head out the door. After a short assessment and fear of being left behind, she breathes a heavy sigh of relief and falls back asleep. Little does she know, my morning tour is helping set the stage for what all Minnesota pheasant hunters and their beloved bird dogs await – positive results of the August Roadside Survey.  
Dating back to 1955, the Minnesota DNR has conducted annual roadside surveys to track the abundance and long-term population trends for ring-necked pheasants, gray partridge, eastern cottontail rabbits, white-tailed jackrabbits, white-tailed deer, mourning doves, and sandhill cranes. In 2016, 151 25-mile routes in the pheasant range were combined and compared to previous year results in order to monitor annual changes in the relative abundance of pheasants – this year’s results have provided encouraging news to pheasant hunters in Minnesota.
Traveling in the dark towards Isanti County to meet with Melissa Koelsch, Assistant Area Wildlife Manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, my expectations were high after hearing promising reports from other DNR staffers completing roadside counts in east-central Minnesota. And why wouldn’t they be? With a relatively easy winter for pheasants, warm spring temperatures, and net habitat gains of 61,525 acres across Minnesota’s pheasant range since 2015, weather and habitat trends foreshadowed an increase for many species, including the ringneck.

Wildlife is not hard to come by in this region of the state since every cover type – wetlands, grasslands, pastureland, hay, oak savannah, corn, wheat, and beans – provides a habitat mosaic that lends itself to nature. The first five miles of our route revealed geese, deer, turkeys, cranes, doves, and even a striped skunk to keep us on our toes. Shortly thereafter, just off the roadside, was a sight every pheasant hunter hopes to encounter during the preseason.
“Right there, Melissa,” I eagerly stated while moving the camera into position to film a young rooster shaking dew from his feathers on a roadside fencepost. Moments later, a second juvenile rooster made the leap of faith from heavy cover to join his brother. “I’ll bet the rest of the brood is in the grass below,” said Melissa, “let’s see if we can get a flush.” The flush (an effort must be made to do so per instructions of the roadside survey), including all 14 birds that were counted as part of the brood, was spectacular. Unfortunately, the cameraman (me) failed to capture any of it, but it was a great start to our day.
As we progressed through the 25-mile route, pheasants and many other species included in the survey seemed ready and willing to make an appearance on the roadsides. Although I cannot provide the final data set from our excursion, I will say that Minnesota sportsmen and women – pheasant hunters, deer hunters, and the like – have plenty of reasons to be optimistic for the upcoming season. 
Returning home from the roadside count, Koda and my up-and-coming English Pointer, Jaxon, ran towards the truck and greeted me when opening the door. What they missed with my departure that morning was now very evident upon my return – I was wearing hunting boots with two years’ worth of bird scent caked on the laces. Their excitement was only matched by my enthusiasm from the morning’s roadside count, so I grabbed the pheasant bumper and we got to work.
Story by Jared Wiklund, Pheasants Forever’s Public Relations Manager