Winter and Wetness Reduce Roadside Survey Counts but Scouting and Effort Will Produce Roosters this Fall
By Tom Carpenter, Editor at Pheasants Forever
In a fairly consistent refrain across the pheasant range, Minnesota’s tune rings familiar: It was one hell of a bad winter (with a lot of March and April “blizzardry” to cap it all off) followed by a wet-and-cool summer that didn’t do any favors for hens performing nesting and brood-rearing duties.
In some ways it’s a miracle that Minnesota’s traditional August roadside bird count was only down 17 percent overall from last year (37.4 birds per 100 miles in 2019 compared to 45.2 birds per mile in 2018). In part that’s a testament to good habitat where we have it; we just need more of it. But more on that later.
Yet the moist-and-cool summer may have provided two favors to the birds. Much upland habitat is in prime shape. And the wet conditions are going to help birds on the ground escape some early-season pressure after the pheasants’ first retreat into full-up sloughs and marshes.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s take an organized look at pheasant hunting prospects for this fall in Pheasants Forever’s home state.
Weather and Conditions
“Winter was just exceptionally snowy and cold statewide,” says Tim Lyons, upland game research scientist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR). “Average temperatures were 2 to 5 degrees below 30-year averages, and we had fairly persistent snowpack in just about every portion of the pheasant range.” January and February saw significant arctic events settle in for days at a time.
“While this may have some negative effect on over-winter survival, it doesn’t seem too awful,” Lyons continues. “The number of roosters counted on the survey this August were fairly similar to last year and the 10-year average. Hens were slightly lower, but I think that is due to changes in nesting behavior this year” (discussed more below).
Nesting season was affected. “Snow persisted longer than in years past,” says Lyons, and it kept on coming right into April. “Spring was also cooler than average statewide, and we saw heavier than normal precipitation throughout the pheasant range. It was pretty heavy everywhere, although the Southeast seemed to be worse affected than other areas.”
Habitat, Broods and Counts
All that said, a better late-summer period of warmer temperatures and drier conditions, coupled with the healthy habitat, may have provided a silver lining via re-nesting attempts. As many Minnesota pheasant hunters will tell you, the same thing happened in 2018 with a lot of young birds out in the fields early-on … birds that probably weren’t counted in any roadside surveys.
“I think there was enough rain for vegetation and bug growth for pheasant nesting and brood-rearing,” says Lyons. “But the weather definitely delayed or reduced breeding success for our hens” the first time around this year. “Hatch date was about a week later this year than last year (and the 10-year average), and we saw fewer broods than last year as well. Brood size is similar, so it seems like chick survival wasn’t adversely impacted. Still, birds will re-nest given the right habitat conditions.”
“Our hen count was slightly lower this year,” he adds, “and that could easily be attributable to more hens being on the nest when we conducted the surveys. So yes, we may still see brood production, and more young birds on the ground, come the opener.”
“We may have missed some successful hens in our August count,” he adds anecdotally. “I saw a brood right before Labor Day with chicks only one or 2 weeks old. That hen would have been on a nest when we were trying to count birds. The upshot is, the apparent decline in broods-per-hen and total broods may still turn around. Hunters may be seeing some smaller, younger, birds this fall” … like 2018.
“The biggest limiting factor, and the one responsible for the pheasant decline we’ve seen over the last 10 years (even moreso than weather) is the general loss of habitat, primarily in CRP,” says Lyons. “The total amount of public habitat in the pheasant range did increase over the last year,” he points out, and that number comes in at 13,508 acres statewide, mostly via new Waterfowl Production Areas (WPAs) and Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs), many with a Pheasant Forever tie, as well as wildlife refuges and conservation easements.
“The issue is future enrollment in federal set-aside programs like CRP, that is still hampered by the caps set forth in the most recent farm bill,” says Lyons. “Right now our biggest concern is the number of acres of CRP set to expire at the end of September -- 80,000 acres,” says Lyons.
Bottom lines here? You Pheasants Forever membership matters more than ever if you value public places to hunt … and having good habitat (and birds) on them.
It’s simple to look at Minnesota’s handy Pheasant Hunting Prospects Map (following) and butt up the right colors against good public land areas and have at it. But that’s what everybody else does. Some smart hunters go to the fringes of the “high count” areas and scout out the best habitat to enjoy hunts with fewer fellow hunters sharing the field.
“I think hunting will be tougher than last year, and variable among fields, even within the same region,” Lyons says. ”Pheasant numbers appear down due to delayed/ reduced breeding success. While overall a lot of nesting acres were probably adversely affected by the spring rains, the fields that stayed drier should have been productive, even if on average that region saw a decline. The best opportunities for hens to nest/re-nest typically are likely found in areas with more grassland cover overall and fields that have native grasses and forbs.”
In short, good habitat will trump a lot of negatives.
“West-central, Southwest, and parts of south-Central and Central Minnesota should be fair to good,” he says. There will be very good pockets of birds where habitat if especially favorable. In addition to generally having greater numbers of birds, these areas – especially the West-Central and Southwest -- have the most public land available as well. “Don’t overlook the Southeast or East-Central regions though; with the right habitat, hunters should be able to find birds.”
“One additional factor that may complicate matters is the presence of idled fields or standing crop next to grassland habitat,” notes Lyons. “The wet spring meant a delay in planting and some fields went unplanted. If there are still adjacent fields with unharvested crops have been harvested or idled fields that aren’t yet mowed or sprayed come the opener, some birds may be in those alternative covers as opposed to grassland during the day, leading to lower numbers of birds observed on-site.”
Coupled with all the wet places that will freeze later, the message is this: Pheasant hunting will probably get better and better as the season goes on this year in Minnesota. Do not be a one-and-done opening weekend wonder!
As always, another bright spot in Minnesota is the abundance of public lands to hunt. WMAs and WPAs lead the way, but don’t pass up Minnesota’s increasingly wonderful Walk-In Access (WIA) program. “The number of acres of private land open to hunters (with but a $3 WIA validation on their license) continues to increase,” says Lyons, and in fact is almost at 30,000 acres this year. Much of it is prime habitat too.
Hunters can find state, federal, and WIA lands open to hunting through Minnesota’s easy-to-use Recreation Compass
“Scout in person or online before your hunt if you can and be prepared to have to cover some miles to find birds,” says Lyons. “Birds won’t be as widespread as last year, and expect a lot of variability, even among fields in the same region. But given the right habitat conditions (avoided flooding, native grasses and forbs), hunters should be able to get into some roosters.”
If you’ve read this far, here’s my tip. Look for complexes of public lands … areas where a pheasant could get from here to there to over yonder on different tracts of public land. If the place is in decent pheasant range, give it a go. That was my approach much of the time when hunting with Lark the little Epagneul Breton, a mere puppy only 6 to 8 months of age during last year’s Minnesota’s pheasant season, and we averaged well over a rooster a day across Minnesota-public-land-days-hunted.
I expect to do better this year. You can too.
Read the Minnesota DNR's full August Roadside Survey Report here.