Despite drought, it should be a decent to good pheasant season Minnesota
By Tom Carpenter
Summer chatter among upland circles in the North Star state was all about the dry conditions … yes, we’ll call it that nasty word “drought”… and what the effect was going to be on pheasant habitat and brood-rearing conditions for the birds.
Some folks didn’t have a worry in the world. Others thought the world was ending. Reality seemed to have landed somewhere in between.
Things were poised for big times.
“Last winter was very mild in terms of temperatures and snowfall,” said Tim Lyons, upland game research scientist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Farmland Wildlife Populations and Research Group. “A few weeks in February was all the severe cold or snow we had” for the most part. “Most places in the pheasant range, we couldn’t even cross-country ski until mid-February! Then it warmed up fast in spring. That should have all been very good for pheasants.”
Indeed it was. Plenty of birds were on the ground. But then, about the first week of June, the rain spigots shut off. Warm and dry conditions are good for pheasants, to an extent. But not necessarily for their habitat.
“We had mixed reports from folks in the field that they were seeing fewer birds than they expected, and others thinking it was the best year they had on record” this summer, says Lyons. “I don’t know there was a strong pattern based on drought in the core pheasant range here in Minnesota. Generally, I would have expected conditions to be favorable for chicks.”
For the worry warts, like me, “we just don’t know a whole lot about how drought affects game birds in temperate grasslands like here in Minnesota,” says Lyons. “I don’t think the drought has as much of a (short-term) effect or affects pheasants like we tend to expect. There isn’t any real evidence that in the Midwest, drought leads to starvation.”
“Drought probably has a bigger effect on birds in shortgrass and more arid grasslands,” says Lyons. “There, drought means no vegetation growth, so no bugs and no cover. Further east, like in Minnesota, it just means things are drier. From some of my experience with monitoring songbirds during the 2011 drought in the Midwest, what’s more likely is females won’t make as many nesting attempts.”
The biggest effect on habitat “will be on areas that had emergency haying or grazing,” says Lyons. This is a factor worth checking up on, either via actual windshield-time pre-season scouting, or at the least by making some calls out to your contacts in pheasant country.
“We’re starting to get more rain now,” says Lyons, “and with adequate snow this winter (but not too much! – ed.
) the habitat should be fine long-term.”
See the Regional Field Reports (on down the line in this forecast), for some on-the-ground input from folks who know in pheasant country. Also take a look at Minnesota’s Roadside Pheasant Survey (map following), and the complete DNR Roadside Survey Report
. Minnesota annually does perhaps the finest job across the pheasant range in conducting a scientifically-based survey of pheasants.
That said, there is a “beware,” and it is a good “beware!”
From the DNR’S pheasant report summary itself, to every person interviewed for the Field Reports that follow, the extremely dry conditions happening during the roadside count likely understated pheasant numbers in some areas.
How? Birds don’t have to come out to roadside to dry off when there is no dew.
How much? No one knows. But every source I talked to mentions it and cites anecdotal evidence that pheasant numbers may just may be better than the survey indicates. Following is the pheasant surevy map. Find supporting data
Lyons suggests: “Much of our public land in the southwest gets a lot of pressure, so folks might be more successful (or at least have a more enjoyable experience) if they can find spots off the beaten path” in not-so-core pheasant areas around the state.
Believe me: There are birds in places that are not popular or fashionable among your typical Minnesota pheasant hunters.
REGIONAL FIELD REPORTS
Here are three bottom lines this reporter gleaned from talking to all the folks it took to put together this report.
Despite the drought, is should be a good pheasant hunting season in Minnesota, with bird numbers in general akin to last year.
Do not, repeat do not, be surprised if the habitat looks different in some places, or is reduced through emergency haying or grazing.
Those darkest areas on the maps? Yep they have birds. They are also going to have the most hunters. Spoke out to some new areas this year and expand your horizons. (See INSIDER TIP above.)
Troy Dale is assistant wildlife manager for the Minnesota DNR in Marshall. He talked about what he is seeing on the ground for habitat and birds in the Marshall area – Lyon, Lincoln, Murray and Yellow Medicine Counties, and surrounds.
“Our August roadside counts were down,” says Dale. “But I don’t think our actual numbers will be down that much. Why? Because it was in fact so dry when the counts were conducted. The birds just didn’t have to come out of the grass early in the day to dry off.”
Dale conducts routes himself, so he knows. “We just did not have the dewy mornings. You would see the grass rustling sometimes but you can’t count grass rustling as birds.”
That’s not to say counts are great. The science behind the count is excellent, a real credit to our DNR in Minnesota. But conditions were not ideal, so don’t despair at what you might see on paper. That said, Dale thinks the early hatch birds are the ones for this year. “The young birds we did see were big,” he said. “We didn’t see many really little ones in August.”
“The nesting conditions were perfect early on,” he says. “Then it got tough. That’s typical for a drought year.”
So what does it all mean for pheasant hunters? Don’t stay away because of any roadside counts. “It might not be a banner year,” says Dale, “that’s no doubt. But there are birds.”
Walk-In Area Notes. In a wonderful bright spot for Minnesota pheasant hunters, the state’s Walk-In Access (WIA) program surpassed 30,000 acres enrolled this year. “We had a darn good enrollment year,” says Dale. “We enrolled more than 4,500 new acres. What a good feeling to surpass 30,000 acres.”
“Many of these walk-in areas are just prime,” says Dale. “Get a walk-in validation and hunt them.”
Lac qui Parle Region
Gary Hauck, lifetime resident of Laq qui Parle County, longtime Pheasants Forever member, and PF chapter leader who helped secure many of the public lands enjoyed in this part of the state, had a few insights for his and the counties surrounding, such as Big Stone.
“The drought has had an effect on the birds, but perhaps not as much as I had feared,” Hauck said. “If you would have asked me a month ago, I would have been a little negative. But I have started seeing more birds lately, and of various sizes too – little ones and bigger ones.” That’s good news: Hatches happened over the summer here, and birds had enough resources to make it.
“From what I am seeing, I think bird numbers and hunting will be better than last year, but not by a whole lot,” Hauck says. Still, we’ll take that in a drought year. “When it’s time to hunt, you just have to find the habitat.”
Advice: “A little scouting might be in order to know what you’re getting into,” he warns. “Hunting spots are not going to look like they do other years.”
“Emergency haying and grazing has happened, yes,” Hauck adds. “I saw a 160-acre CRP piece a few weeks ago intact, and now it’s pretty much all cut. I have seen the same thing with smaller parcels too, say 20-acre pieces.” Those developments may serve to concentrate birds in remaining habitat. The hope is, most of the hatched birds were big enough to get away before emergency mowing; cows are gentler on the birds.
“Cattail areas in general are pretty intact though” adds Hauck, indicating what might be your hunting style this year in western Minnesota, even early on. “Public lands actually look pretty good, though there is some habitat management going on – cutting and some grazing.”
Hauck and his trusty Lab Ace are sure to pick off a few western Minnesota roosters this year.
Nobles and Murray County Area
“As with most years, I drove a route on the official roadside summer survey,” says Scott Rall, longtime PF chapter leader, public land creator and pheasant hunter from Worthington. “I started 6 years ago doing it. This year on my route, I saw 12 birds on a 75-mile drive. That was worrisome.”
But, like other commentary this reporter has received, it may have not been the end of the story. Says Rall: “I went back one afternoon and did a prime portion of the route on my own, unscientifically and unofficially mind you, and saw 23 birds over 3 miles at 5:30 in the afternoon.”
“Our roadside surveys are the best here in Minnesota, but the process needs the right conditions, and it was just so very dry on the survey days,” says Rall. Pheasants didn’t need to come roadside to dry off. The message once again? Let the survey guide you for bird numbers on a relative basis, but don’t let them scare you away this year.
“I saw pheasants while dove hunting,” adds Rall. “And on trash cleanup day at a local WMA, I saw 7 really nice pheasants.”
“Nobles County and surrounding areas were not quite as dry as some areas of the state” he adds. “Grasshoppers were everywhere for food. I have heard of a few late broods, but for the most part I think the hatch was early.”
And, he adds, “folks in both Pipestone and Murray Counties, in addition to Nobles and Jackson – people commuting daily to work in town somewhere – are seeing some birds.”
“I’m going to say that we have a few more birds around than last year, in this far southwestern corner of the state,” says Rall. “You’re going to hunt. But there are birds to be had, there is no doubt.”
Up toward Morris, in Stevens, Pope and Douglas Counties and surrounds, I hooked up with Dave Jungst, Prairie Bank Specialist for the Minnesota DNR, longtime PF supporter (Stevens County Chapter #5), and serious pheasant hunter.
“Last winter was not tough on these tough birds,” says Jungst. “And we greened up early for spring.”
“From what I see, we had a good hatch,” he says. “The weather was ideal for that. Insects were abundant for chicks.”
“While working some mid-contract CRP management in August, I found two nests with 11 and 13 eggs,” he says, “and I know both nests hatched. So we’ll have some younger birds too. We’ve been seeing broods roadside.”
“I am going to say this fall’s hunting is going to be a little better than last fall,” is his prediction.
“It’s not too bad for emergency haying and grazing around here,” he says. “We started out with a fair amount, but then it tapered off. Our big dairies have big irrigated alfalfa for forage; that’s good for saving grass.”
Jungst was delighted to see hunter numbers surge last season, and hopes many of them come back post-Covid. “It was good to see. We need hunters for economies, and for conservation.”
Jungst also commented on the Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Fund, and what it has done for putting prairie habitat – read, places to hunt pheasants – on the landscape. “Teamed up with PF and partners, these dollars are making a real difference.”
Tom Carpenter, assisted by Lark, is editor at Pheasants Forever. He shot his first Minnesota rooster in Carver County in 1986.