Despite wildfires and drought, there are some bright spots for California pheasant hunters
By Andy Fondrick
While wildfires and drought conditions have made things tough on upland birds in California this year, there are a few bright spots in the state hunters can turn to in their pheasant pursuits. Preparing ahead of time and doing some homework will be critical with wildfires potentially lingering into late fall.
Weather and Conditions
California experienced mild temperatures through the winter of 2020-2021. However, precipitation levels fell below the 30-year normal range.
According to Matt Meshriy and Katherine Miller, upland game bird biologists with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), drought conditions continued into the spring and summer months in California. The best pheasant habitat lies in the Great Valley where many farmers grow rice and cereal grains. Many of these farms depend on water allotments which were limited this year, thus limiting pheasant production by reducing nest and brood cover.
The biologists also added that insects, important in young pheasants’ diets, also suffered due to dry conditions.
Habitat, Broods and Counts
Upland habitats across the state are predictably dry heading into the fall.
“California is experiencing several large wildfires which could directly impact pheasants on the edges of the valleys and nearby foothills, while pheasants in the Great Valley contend with wildfire smoke in addition to drought,” Meshriy says.
The CDFW doesn’t coordinate a range-wide survey for pheasants in California. Meshriy and Miller did mention that staff monitor North American Breeding Bird Survey data annually to model pheasant range and abundance indices over time.
“The 2020 survey was cancelled due to COVID concerns,” Meshriy says. While the 2021 survey data was not yet available at the time of this forecast, they expect that pheasant population levels for 2021 will be among lowest in years.
Even with the dry conditions, there are a few bright spots for upland birds in the state. Through a collaboration of the CDFW and a handful of other organizations, there are efforts in the Great Valley to encourage farmers to leave nesting cover on the landscape, utilizing the Nesting Bird Incentive Program. These efforts provide critical habitat for waterfowl and upland birds in California.
Based on the 2020-2021 harvest survey, there are a few spots an upland hunters might look to try first when hunting The Golden State.
According to Meshriy and Miller, the greatest number of hunters reported hunting effort in Yolo, Solano and Colusa Counties. Siskiyou and Butte Counties can be included among the highest for reported harvest last season.
As always, the key will be to find strong habitat that provided critical protection during the drought.
In similar fashion to the past few years, hunters in California should expected some curveballs this season that may have nothing to do with the birds themselves.
“California is experiencing another record wildfire season with impacts that could linger into the late fall,” warns Meshriy. “Be aware of the potential for area or road closures and sensitive to local conditions.”
Doing your homework and staying tuned in to the local weather and fire reports will be the keys to a successful, and safe, pheasant season.