By Tom Carpenter
WEATHER AND CONDITIONS
“Despite late-season snowstorms (which extended into April) and excessive spring and summer rainfall across much of the pheasant range, Minnesota’s 2018 August Roadside Survey showed increases in the pheasant index in all regions of our state’s farmland zones, except the south-central region,” reports Lindsey Messinger, Wildlife Research Biologist in the Farmland Wildlife Populations and Research Group of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
“Total pheasant counts were variable across regions with the west-central (65.1 birds/100 miles), southwest (54.1 birds/100 miles), and central (48.1 birds/100 miles) regions receiving the highest bird observations,” says Messinger.
Small birds are still being seen, according to field reports. “Nesting activity appears to have been delayed, particularly in the southwest and south-central portions of the state,” confirms Messinger. “This is most likely attributable to several measurable snow events in April and cooler than normal spring temperatures.”
HATCH AND BROODS
“Observers on our roadside survey routes saw younger broods than normal,” says Messinger. “Thus, estimated hatch dates from the roadside survey were 1-3 weeks later than in 2017 and 1-2 weeks later than the 10-year average.”
“Although delayed nesting activity does not necessarily mean bad news, we do know nests that hatch earlier in the season typically contain more eggs, are more likely to hatch, and chick survival is higher,” says Messinger. “We are unable to discern from the roadside survey observations whether hens delayed nesting or if many first nesting attempts were unsuccessful.”
All pheasant hunters would agree though: a late hatch is better than no hatch.
“Some good news is that the statewide brood index was up 28% in 2018, so it appears that timing of some of the heavy spring and summer rainfall did not hit at peak hatch,” says Messinger. This is indeed good news for hunters who worried about southwestern Minnesota’s epic July rain events.
“The south-central region was one exception where April snow and heavy spring and summer rain did appear to have an impact on reproduction,” Messinger notes, “with the brood index in that region declining 28% from 2017. Observers in the field were still seeing very young broods even after the completion of the roadside survey though, so it is possible the brood index may have been conservative.”
“Bottom line, weather delays and impacts on nesting activity and brood rearing may not have fully represented hens with broods, especially hens with very young broods or hens still on nests at the time of the survey,” says Messinger.
HABITAT AND PROGRAMS
The news is pretty good. Don’t let that let you get complacent though. “Habitat is still a concern for Minnesota,” says Messinger. “However, in 2018 there were several habitat gains, primarily through Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) enrollment. CRP continues to provide the largest source of grassland habitat required for nesting, brood rearing, and winter cover.”
“State and federal acreage gains were also steady, with most of those acres acquired in the pheasant range,” says Messinger. Pheasants Forever is key in many of those acquisitions
“Coupled with private-lands habitat programs is that of private lands hunting access,” says Messinger. “Minnesota’s Walk-in Access program continues to provide public hunting opportunities on private lands and is currently the biggest it has ever been, with over 250 sites totaling 30,000 acres across 47 counties in the farmland region of Minnesota.”
Walk-in sites are open to public hunting 1 September – 31 May. Hunters must purchase a $3 WIA validation with allows access to all WIA lands statewide.
“State Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) and Federal Waterfowl Production Areas (WPAs) also provide important public hunting opportunities and are critical for wildlife conservation,” adds Messinger.
“Good pheasant hunting opportunities in Minnesota will continue in the core pheasant range,” predicts Messinger. “Best bets include Redwood and Cottonwood counties (southwest region), Brown and Nicollet counties (south-central region), Douglas, Ottertail, Lac Qui Parle, Chippewa, and Yellow Medicine counties (west-central region), and Renville and Sibley counties (central region).”
Minnesota’s Pheasant Map is a good guide. Tip: Remember that areas outside the cores can have some excellent localized bird populations.
“Because of locally variable weather conditions and pockets of good habitat in other areas, it is always advisable to do some pre-hunt scouting and get boots on the ground!” advises Messinger.
Here’s this writer’s viewpoint. There’s not much excuse to sit out Minnesota’s pheasant season this year. Counts are up somewhat, according to the consistently reliable annual roadside survey. And there’s a chance those survey counts could be slightly understated at that, due to what appears to be a late hatch. Finally, don’t be a one-weekend wonder on the opener: Some of those young roosters are going to be coloring up later in the fall, and they’ll be there waiting for hunters willing to put in a little work with their bird dogs.
See Minnesota’s full August Roadside Survey Report here