Remember to Check Your Local Regulations for Off-Leash Rules
As the calendar hits mid-April, upland birds across much of the U.S. are beginning to nest.
It’s a particularly vulnerable time for hens in regard to predators and a whole list of other possible threats. State management agencies obviously want to limit any additional threats as much as possible, which is why most states have specific regulations about running dogs off-leash on public lands in the spring. In Minnesota, dog owners must have dogs leashed between April 16-July 14. In Wisconsin the dates are April 15-July 31.
It’s hard to resist the urge to run your dog in the spring. After a long winter the chance to finally stretch your legs, and your dog’s legs, is much needed. But while busting a hen off her nest may seem inconsequential so long as there’s no shotgun involved after the flush, it can actually have serious consequences.
“Even after a hen completes laying a clutch of eggs, she’ll abandon that nest if she’s disturbed too much,” said Tim Lyons, an upland game research scientist at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “And just getting close enough for them to flush can cause that. They’re very touchy.”
More often than not, the hens will re-nest and try again depending on how much suitable habitat is in their area. But as the spring progresses, the window for hatching a healthy clutch of chicks narrows. Most pheasant broods are between 12-15 chicks, so every time a dog flushes a nesting hen there’s the potential to have that many fewer pheasants on that piece of land come autumn.
Even while on private property, it’s important to be able to identify likely pheasant nesting habitat and keep your dogs out of it during spring months.
“Pheasants prefer native, diverse grasses,” Lyons said. “And if you have some dead vegetation mixed in that falls over, it creates nice little hidey-holes to start a nest in. They’ll certainly use hay fields and other types of short, grassy habitat, but those take much longer to grow tall enough to provide adequate cover.”
The peak hatch for pheasant broods in the Midwest usually occurs in early June. Once they hit the ground, it takes another month for them to fly well enough to evade the jaws of an off-leash dog.
“They start to thermoregulate on their own at around six to seven days and can make some short flights by about 12-15 days,” Lyons said. “But they’re not strong flyers until they’re at least 25 or 30 days old.”
Both before and after the hatch, off-leash hunting dogs can be a detriment to young pheasants. If you’re planning on running your dog this spring/summer, check with your local wildlife agency first to ensure you’re not putting this fall’s roosters in jeopardy.
Spring also brings turkey season, so even if you’re in an area that does allow off-leash dogs, be cognizant of who else may be using that land. As always, a great rule of thumb is if there’s already a car in the parking lot when you show up — move along.