Late start to breeding and brooding may have been good for Oklahoma pheasants … and pheasant hunters
By Greg Breining
Tell Judkins, upland game biologist for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, isn’t buying what the spring crow count is telling him about the upcoming pheasant season — that breeding roosters were down 40 percent from 2020.
A big February story dumped a load of snow and deep subzero temperatures on the state. The cold snap seemed to delay everything from pheasant breeding to the crappie spawn, says Judkins. As a result, crowing counts at the beginning of the survey period recorded very little, while crews at the end of the period heard more birds than average.
“I think it may have delayed our nesting to some extent or kind of forced the birds’ hands into a second nesting attempt,” he says. “I don’t think the results on paper quite match the results out in the field.” He bets the bird numbers are better than what the spring count says.
Since breeding season, birds have been abetted by warm but not scorching temperatures and ample rain.
In fact, Judkins was on a survey route several times as part of a research project in cooperation with Iowa State University. “I thought I was in South Dakota or North Dakota for a second,” he says. “We got into this one brood of eight that just flushed out of one little bitty speck of grass that hadn’t been cut. It was pretty spectacular. I was very much liking to see that,” he says.
The August roadside brood surveys would seem to back up his intuition. Both statewide and in traditionally strong pheasant counties brood numbers matched numbers from last year, and total number of pheasants spotted was about 25 percent higher this year. The numbers were only slightly below the average for the previous five years (which is skewed by a phenomenal 2015-16).
“Now I’m not going to say it’s going to be a spectacular pheasant year. We’re not a destination pheasant state by any stretch of the imagination,” says Judkins. “But a lot of our folks who are already out chasing quail or chasing some type of upland bird will bump into pheasants.”
Hunters who want to fine-tune their expectations should pay attention to a late-season roadside survey in October. “That gives us another way of looking at this data to verify, to corroborate, and can really give us a really good picture as we get closer to season.”
As usual, numbers will be strongest in the Panhandle and elsewhere in the Northwest. Alfalfa, Beaver, Cimarron, Grant, and Texas counties have long had the highest pheasant numbers.
Judkins recommends scouting via the department’s website (wildlifedepartment.com). Interactive maps provide information about two categories of public lands of particular interest to pheasant hunters: state wildlife management areas and Oklahoma Land Access Program sites. The OLAP sites are private lands on which public access is leased. The maps will enable hunters to see where row crops butt up against WMAs and OLAP sites.
Judkins advises hunters to also look for species of game birds that may share the landscape with pheasants, especially the bobwhite. Not only do they share habitat, but the bobwhite season completely overlaps the pheasant season.
“Get out there, work some ground, trust your dog, and make a memory enjoying the Oklahoma outdoors,” he says. “That’s what it’s about.”
Oklahoma’s pheasant season runs December 1 to January 31. Limit is 2 roosters daily, with 4 in possession after the first day.