Questions continually arise from both hunters and non-hunters alike about the effects of regulated sport hunting on ring-necked pheasants.
SHOULD BAG LIMITS & SEASONS BE ADJUSTED?
Ring-necked pheasants are promiscuous birds, and one rooster (male) may mate with as many as a dozen hens (females). Hunting males only removes "surplus" roosters not needed for reproduction in the spring. In addition, since hens and roosters are easily distinguished in wingshooting situations, pheasants are managed more conservatively than other upland gamebirds—as the hen segment of the population is protected from hunting. Thus, adjusting season length and bag limits on surplus roosters will have almost no effect on future populations!
HOW IS PHEASANT HARVEST MEASURED?
Reliable estimates of annual harvest are obtained by random mail and phone surveys polling 2-5% of the hunters. This data is extrapolated to estimate the season's harvest. The percent of roosters harvested is determined by surveys of the post-season population. A low ratio of hens to roosters (3:1) indicates relatively few males were taken. A high ratio (10:1) indicates a very efficient rooster harvest—a level of harvest seldom seen except in localized situations.
WHEN IS HUNTING SUCCESS, HARVEST AND PRESSURE THE GREATEST?
In most cases, hunting success, harvest and pressure are greatest during the early part of the season. For example, Iowa's greatest hunting pressure occurs in the first half of the 70+ day season, with 71% of the trips taking place during the first 30-34 days. It is common for 30-50% of the season's harvest to take place during opening weekend in many states.
The effect of hunting pressure on harvest may be dictated by season length or available cover. Short seasons may have heavy pressure throughout. When cover is sparse, birds are concentrated, allowing the harvest of a larger portion of roosters. In contrast, an abundance of escape cover-such as cover provided by delays in crop harvest-can make pheasants nearly impossible to bag. These conditions can cause variations in hunting pressure throughout the season.
HOW GREAT OF A PROBLEM are CRIPPLED BIRDS?
Each year, a segment of the pheasant population is crippled by birdshot and not retrieved by hunters. By using hunter interviews and check station data, biologists estimate an additional mortality of 10-35 percent occurs due to crippling. This additional loss of surplus males is inconsequential to future pheasant production.
HOW DOES HUNTING AFFECT ROOSTERS IN A PHEASANT POPULATION?
Survival of roosters in hunted populations is normally very low, but that is not a concern. In fact, hunters could harvest 93 percent of pre-hunt rooster numbers without harming the population. However, such a high rate of harvest is very unusual, if not impossible. The normal range is 45-65 percent. Adding an average crippling loss of 10 percent means that 55-75 percent of roosters are often removed from the fall population. In states where significant harvest occurs (Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, and South Dakota), rooster kill averages around 70 percent. Elsewhere, particularly in western states, fewer hunters and less interest usually result in a reduced harvest rate.
WHAT ARE THE EFFECTS OF HUNTING ON HENS?
Few states currently allow legal shooting of wild hen pheasants and there is little definitive data on how hen hunting affects reproduction. Some biologists have speculated that if more than 25-35 percent of hens were harvested, reproduction would decrease. The record is ambiguous- controlled hen seasons in Montana, Idaho, California, Iowa and Nebraska apparently did not limit reproduction, but data from Wisconsin, South Dakota and Minnesota indicate the opposite. Due to the ambiguity and past traditions, we don't hunt hens today.
WHAT IS THE EFFECT OF RESTRICTING BAGS?
Reducing bag limits will have little effect on pheasant populations. In most states, the seasonal bag limit per hunter is only 2-4 roosters. The only reason to reduce bags is to more equally distribute the harvest among hunters. Considering the majority of hunters are active only during the first two weeks of the season, the effect of restricting daily bag limits would be minimal.
DOES CHANGING CLOSING DATES AFFECT THE POPULATION?
The argument has been made that closing hunting seasons earlier will prevent birds from being flushed from good winter cover into marginal areas where they are vulnerable to winter storms and predation. This may occur in some cases; however, because of diminishing returns to hunters as the season progresses, later season closures have a minimal effect on current or future pheasant populations. Simply put, fewer people hunt in late season and they only affect scattered pockets of cover.
WHAT'S THE BOTTOM LINE?
Liberal, legal, roosters-only seasons do not harm populations. If seasons work as designed, the outcome is a reduced standing population of male ring-necked pheasants. Extensive research has shown this has little or no effect on pheasant reproduction and subsequent populations.