Field Reports: Winter Wrap-Ups + Nesting Season Forecasts

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Winter was not a killer across the core pheasant range. Habitat (some of it challenged by drought) and nesting success will write fall’s prospects

By Greg Breining

Weather, along with habitat, is one of the big variables controlling the number of pheasants we see each hunting season.

That’s especially true in the northern reaches of pheasant range, where extreme winter cold taxes birds’ ability to keep warm and increases demand for calories. Deep or prolonged snow and ice prevent pheasants and other ground-foraging birds from finding and reaching food, just when they need it most.

Severe winters can decimate otherwise healthy pheasant populations. And if birds are already suffering through long-term drought or a series of crippling weather events, then a tough winter can really do a lot of damage.

Good habitat helps blunt the worst of bad weather. Thermal protection such as cattail marshes helps birds escape bitter cold, and a variety of nearby wild and agricultural food sources give birds options in snowy and icy weather.

So as spring takes hold across the core pheasant range, we asked: How about this past winter? How bad was it, and what are the prospects for pheasants as they head toward nesting season this spring?

The good news overall — winter in most northern states was generally mild, or at the very least normal. Small areas where weather was more severe than normal don’t threaten pheasant numbers as a whole.

What’s going to really matter for pheasant numbers is coming up: Nesting season. They need habitat. Good habitat. And they need some cooperation from the weather. Pheasants will need to avoid long cold rains and gully-washers during nesting season. And drought-ravaged areas will need gentle spring rains to rebuild grassland habitat.

Read on for state-by-state summaries or click on the map to jump ahead.


Minnesota

MINNESOTA
A MILD WINTER AND GOOD OUTLOOK FOR SPRING

Despite prolonged cold and snow in parts of Minnesota, the outlook for pheasants is generally good, says Eran Sandquist, Minnesota state coordinator for Pheasants Forever.

“There was some localized snow and ice events over parts of the Minnesota pheasant range, but in general they were followed by warming trends that opened food sources and gave the birds a reprieve.” The exception was the most northern part of the range, where snow lasted longer. But “overall I think we had a good winter as it relates to the pheasants and wildlife,” he says.

“The weather the next few months will play a big role. The good news is we should have had good winter survival and the pheasants should be going into the nesting season in good shape,” says Sandquist. “Based on anecdotal reports I’m hearing, folks are seeing a good number of birds across the core pheasant range. If we can maintain quality habitat, the future looks bright for this fall.”

Tim Lyons, upland game research scientist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, concurs.

“We had longer periods of cold across the state than we did last year. On paper, it will look like we had more snow too, but it wasn’t as bad for pheasants. A lot of that snow in the eastern part of the pheasant range was due to a big storm in December that then completely melted in the next few days. Much of the southern part of the state, and in particular the southwest, was snow-free for a fair bit of the winter,” says Lyons.

“The state produces a winter severity index, and it can sort of give a picture of winter severity for year-to-year, but it’s misleading for pheasants because it’s designed to characterize how snow and cold affect deer survival,” he says. “The quick melt and decent weather this spring makes me hopeful the coming nesting season will be good. Most of the state is now out of drought conditions.”

Regarding highly pathogenic avian influenza, Lyons says it might affect pheasants, but only in local areas, if at all. “I can see some getting it from being near a poultry farm but I don’t think they’re at such high densities we’d see the kind of widespread or large-scale mortalities we see in waterfowl or shorebirds.”


Wisconsin

WISCONSIN
A MILD WINTER AND GOOD OUTLOOK FOR SPRING

Winter in Wisconsin’s pheasant range was generally mild, leaving birds in good condition for spring nesting, says Taylor Finger, who manages the pheasant program for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

“Wisconsin experienced a really mild winter throughout much of the state. Some areas in the far north and northeast saw some pretty significant snowfall events, but across most of the pheasant range in central and southern Wisconsin we saw above average temperatures and below average snowfall. So conditions for pheasants on the landscape were generally favorable over the winter period,” he says.

“Spring may be arriving early in Wisconsin and with the below average precipitation, we are shaping up for a drier spring than usual. Those conditions tend to favor upland nesting bird species, including pheasants, woodcock, grouse and turkeys. So we are anticipating a decent nesting season. But spring in Wisconsin can change on a dime, so we will continue to monitor as the nesting season progresses,” he says.

While highly pathogenic avian influenza has infected domestic flocks in the state, “wild pheasants are considerably less susceptible to getting and spreading avian influenza due to the low densities and that they tend not to concentrate in large numbers. That being said, we are still monitoring and sending in any birds that we find ill, dead or dying to make sure we are making all efforts to detect avian influenza if it is here,” he says.

Marty Moses, Wisconsin state coordinator for Pheasants Forever, says below-average snowfall and lack of ice storms meant that cover and food were available all winter. “Many CRP fields, wetlands and old fields seemed to maintain decent standing cover so we will hopefully have good spring habitat and be ready for nesting season,” he says.

His field staff in northwest Wisconsin, where most of the Badger State’s wild pheasants live, reports seeing pheasants along the roadsides almost daily. “With the mild winter conditions, nesting cover looks good going into the spring, but we will have to see what Mother Nature does over the next few months to know how the nesting season fares.”


Iowa

IOWA
A MILD WINTER AND GOOD OUTLOOK FOR SPRING

Snowfall was below average and winter temperatures were above average throughout the state — to the benefit of both pheasants and bobwhite, says Todd Bogenschutz, upland research wildlife biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

“Expecting good overwinter hen survival for both pheasants and quail. March weather seems to be following along with the rest of the winter—pretty mild.  As long as nesting season weather is normal to just below normal, we should see good nesting conditions this spring,” Bogenschutz says.

Bogenschutz says he doesn’t anticipate that avian influenza will much affect wild pheasants. “We have a statewide wildlife surveillance program but no issue with pheasants so far,” he says, “and we are not expecting problems, with pheasants now dispersing from winter groups.”

However, ongoing drought may cause hunters problems. “If the drought continues into the summer, we could see a lot of CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) contracts released for haying, which could impact hunting for next fall,” Bogenschutz says.

“I do agree with Todd that the drought is a continued concern in terms of potential habitat loss later in the year if CRP acres are opened to haying,” says Josh Divan, Iowa state coordinator for Pheasants Forever. Fortunately, according to the University of Nebraska–Lincoln Drought Monitor, as of late March, only a small pocket of west-central Iowa was experiencing severe drought.

“Anecdotally, our staff have been hearing positive accounts of numbers of pheasants that were seen last fall during and after hunting season in areas where there was quality habitat,” says Divan. “So I would say that the pump is primed for a very impressive hunting season in 2022 if Mother Nature cooperates between now and the end of nesting and brood-rearing season.”


North Dakota

NORTH DAKOTA
A MILD WINTER, BUT PERSISTENT DROUGHT THREATENS HABITAT

North Dakota pheasants have had their weather problems — not so much from winter cold, but from ongoing drought.

Winter weather was normal except for greater snowfall in the southeast. But because of drought, pheasants went into winter at less-than-ideal body weight and had to survive with really poor winter cover, says Rodney Gross, upland game biologist for North Dakota Game and Fish.

“If it could have been hayed it was. Cattails were burned or cut. I would imagine that will have the biggest effect on winter survival,” he says.

As for the heavier snows in the southeast, “We won’t know that till we do our spring crowing count surveys in May-June. I would imagine it did have some affect.”

Last year because of drought, the number of pheasants tallied during the upland game brood survey was down 23 percent. The dry conditions stunted plant growth, including cover pheasants use for nesting and brood raising. According to the trusted University of Nebraska–Lincoln Drought Monitor, as of late March, the western third of North Dakota was still experiencing moderate to severe drought conditions.

As far as this year’s nesting? “Depends on spring rains,” says Gross. “Pretty dry so far.”

Highly pathogenic avian influenza has been detected in the state’s domestic flocks. Pheasants are susceptible, but wildlife officials don’t expect a widespread impact, Gross says. Unlike waterfowl or domestic birds, pheasants tend to congregate only in small groups, making spread of the disease difficult.


South Dakota

SOUTH DAKOTA
A MILD WINTER, BUT PERSISTENT DROUGHT THREATENS HABITAT

South Dakota’s pheasants were blessed by a mild winter. Now, if only some gentle spring rains would moderate the drought.

“South Dakota experienced a mild 2021–22 winter except for a small portion of the northeast part of the state. Well below average snowfall and minimal lasting snow cover should have resulted in very good over winter survival of pheasants,” says Travis Runia, senior upland game biologist for South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks.

The above-average snowfall affected only about three counties in an area not considered prime pheasant range.

South Dakota farmers and pheasants alike have been struggling through prolonged drought.

Last summer, Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) parcels were opened to emergency haying and grazing. That affected private land leased by the state for public hunting. Haying and grazing will benefit habitat over time, but only after increased rainfall contributes to healthier growth of grasses and forbs. According to the University of Nebraska–Lincoln Drought Monitor, as of late March, more than 65 percent of North Dakota was experiencing moderate to severe drought conditions.

“As we look forward to the important nesting season, some timely moisture will enhance habitat conditions after the dry winter and previous summer,” Runia says.

Like many states across the East and Midwest, South Dakota was affected by highly pathogenic avian influenza in its migrating waterfowl and domestic flocks. Both farm-raised and wild pheasants are susceptible, but “we suspect HPAI will be less prevalent in wild pheasants because of their less concentrated distribution across the landscape as compared to large flocks of migratory waterfowl that are currently being affected by the disease,” says Runia. “Even in waterfowl, we do not expect the disease to cause a population-altering die-off.”


Nebraska

NEBRASKA
A MILD WINTER, BUT PERSISTENT DROUGHT THREATENS HABITAT

Nebraska’s climate is mild enough that pheasants usually don’t suffer much from deep snows and prolonged cold. That was true this past winter as well.

“Nebraska experienced a very mild winter and overwinter survival is expected to have been relatively high—as it is in most years,” says John Laux, upland habitat and access program manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

And that is very fortunate, because both pheasants and their grassland habitat have been taking a beating because of Nebraska’s long-term drought.

“The biggest concern right now is that dry conditions have persisted statewide throughout the fall and winter. The lingering effects of drought are most pronounced in the extreme southwest and panhandle regions, that is, Nebraska’s core pheasant range. These areas have experienced drought conditions over the past two growing seasons,” says Laux.

Emergency haying and grazing of CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) fields was widespread in Nebraska last fall, forcing birds to use less-than-optimal winter cover.

“This may have some indirect negative effects on production during the upcoming nesting season if dry conditions persist into the spring and early summer,” says Laux. According to the University of Nebraska–Lincoln Drought Monitor, as of late March, nearly 95 percent of the state was experiencing moderate to severe drought conditions.

According to Laux, the CRP fields that were grazed and mowed don’t recover well during drought, leaving little concealment for hens during nesting. Drought also reduces the availability and quality of other nesting cover, such as rangeland and winter wheat.

“This is significant because we know those early nesting attempts are very important during drought years,” says Laux. Past research in southwestern Nebraska during the 2012–13 drought suggested that drought greatly reduced productivity by shortening the nesting season.

“Time will tell on the severity of those potential impacts, but we are in desperate need of moisture this spring,” Laux says. “Given the current situation, haying and grazing will likely impact some CRP acres again this fall. We have yet to see the results from the recent general CRP signup, but we do know that interest in new enrollments has been relatively low.”

Like wildlife managers in several nearby states, Laux suspects the epidemic of highly pathogenic avian influenza “doesn’t appear to represent a major threat to wild pheasant populations. Given their spatial distribution and occurrence at relatively low densities on the landscape (compared to waterfowl), this limits potential exposure and transmission of the disease. Waterfowl tend to congregate more, which makes those species a better reservoir for harboring the disease compared to upland game birds. Obviously, pen-raised pheasants would be a different story as they would be of much greater risk, but so far there hasn’t been anything to suggest that HPAI is a major concern for wild pheasants or other upland game bird species.”


MONTANA

MONTANA
A MILD WINTER, BUT PERSISTENT DROUGHT THREATENS HABITAT

Ongoing drought and grasshopper plagues have stunted grassland habitat for upland birds. But Montana pheasants caught a break this winter. Southeastern Montana — the state’s primary pheasant range — was hit by snow and cold but only for short periods, says Justin Hughes, game bird habitat specialist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Miles City.

“Luckily, our winter weather was relatively mild, and due to the lack of vegetation on the landscape pheasants would’ve had a hard time finding somewhere to eke out a living if we had received large amounts of snow,” he says.

Nearly all of the pheasant range in Montana is under some level of drought, particularly the northern and eastern portions. According to the University of Nebraska–Lincoln Drought Monitor, as of late March, more than 85 percent of Montana was experiencing moderate to severe drought.

“The drought will also have a strong effect on the nesting season this spring, as many areas have little to no residual cover due to drought and plagues of grasshoppers that were experienced in 2021,” says Hughes.

“This is Montana though, and our weather could change at any time. Ideally we would get some moisture over the next month or two prior to hens initiating nests and be able to grow some grass to help nesting conditions,” he says. “That’s the amazing thing with upland birds — they have the ability to bounce back quickly when environmental conditions allow.”


Greg Breining, assisted by his trusty English field-bred cocker Roscoe, reports on a variety of upland conservation topics for The Habitat Organization.