Photos by Roger Hill
Time will tell if ice, snow and extreme cold impact winter survival rates
Less than a week after much of the Midwest was slammed with the first winter storm of the season, another round of wind, snow and extreme cold is headed to the country’s core pheasant range.
South Dakota, Iowa and western Minnesota are bearing the brunt of the current storm, but harsh conditions range from western Wisconsin all the way to central Montana. The combination of heavy snow and wind can destroy critical winter cover for pheasants, and when that’s immediately followed by extremely cold temperatures it can make for a rough winter.
As of Wednesday afternoon, 17 states were under winter storm warnings, watches, and advisories through the holiday weekend, according to The 1440. Wind chills are expected to drop as low as 60 below in parts of the Dakotas and other areas across the northern great plains, and winds could gust as high as 55 miles an hour. The rapid strengthening of the storm tonight into Friday could result in what’s known as a bomb cyclone. The name elicits a real ‘end of days’ vibe, and while the reality is much less dramatic, the storm could have an impact on winter survival of upland birds.
The key metric to look at here is the length of the weather pattern. While this storm will lead to some bird mortality, the real issues arise with prolonged exposure to extreme conditions. Most birds, upland or not, can hunker down and survive a blizzard for a couple of days. But when below average temperatures and above average snowfall persist, it becomes much harder for birds to survive.
In looking at the post-Christmas forecast, it seems like the eastern Great Plains may catch a break. Temperatures are set to rebound across much of Iowa and Minnesota, as well as eastern Nebraska and South Dakota, with readings in the upper 30s and even low 40s by late next week. The western range is slightly more disconcerting, with a combination of factors indicating a tough winter for birds.
Here’s a breakdown of the situation across the pheasant range.
The Hawkeye State is directly in the sights of the current storm. From midday today through Christmas Eve the windchill in parts of the state will not rise above 30 below, with around six inches of snow and near constant blizzard conditions expected.
This makes for a tough few days to be a pheasant in Iowa, but Todd Bogenschutz, an upland biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, said the date of the storm is actually more concerning than its intensity.
“The last couple winters we haven’t had any snow until about mid-January, so this is coming early,” Bogenschutz said. “And our research here shows the number of days where the ground is white is the best determining factor of how many birds we’re losing. The more snow days we have, the higher our winter mortality. I think the birds can handle it, but this coming storm doesn’t look good.”
Blizzard conditions are expected across the state today and tomorrow, especially throughout the southwest portion of Minnesota.
This, plus an additional half a foot of snow will likely shut down most of the native grass fields and push birds completely into the remaining cattail sloughs, willow thickets and shelter belts.
“These temperatures and the wind can harden snow, making it difficult for birds to forage on grains,” said Josh Pommier, a Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever senior Farm Bill Biologist. “This storm is such a great example of how imperative solid winter cover is. Birds with access to good cover can weather big storms — but if the habitat isn’t there, birds are going to struggle.”
Montana and Wyoming
Much of Montana and Wyoming has had snow cover since mid-November. While it hasn’t necessarily been heavy snow, it’s enough to limit food sources. Drought has knocked the birds down over the course of the last two years — 2022 showed a marked reduction in broods across the area. This winter will probably heighten that situation, especially with the extreme lows and howling winds of the current weather system.
“In the past couple weeks, I’ve harvested some pheasants that are in poor to very poor condition, very little meat and absolutely no fat reserves, already showing signs of starving,” said Joshua Hobbs, a Pheasants Forever coordinating biologist in Winnett, Mont. “I felt bad for taking them, but I also know they would not have survived the winter. Sharptails I’ve harvested have been in much better condition than the pheasants, but still show very little fat reserves.”
There’s also been some reports of bird mortality due to exposure across the area.
“I had a report from about three weeks ago where a group’s dogs were returning from the cattails in some local WMAs with more dead frozen pheasants than they were flushing,” said Martin Townsend, a Pheasants Forever coordinating biologist in Malta, Mont.
Eastern Nebraska fared better than the western reaches of the state in last week’s storm, and that trend is set to continue with this round of weather.
Western Nebraska, like Wyoming and Montana, has been hit hard by drought over the course of the last two years, and throwing a harsh winter on the heels of that drought makes for very unfavorable long-term conditions.
“It’s been so dry out there, and now it’s all covered in snow,” said Kelsi Wehrman, Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever’s Nebraska state coordinator. “I would expect a pretty devastating impact.”
North Dakota and South Dakota
Parts of central South Dakota saw as much as 30 inches of snow in the first round of storms last week and are now getting hit hard with wind and cold. Blizzard conditions will persist throughout the state until Saturday, with wind chills potentially dipping to 60 below in places.
However, the Dakotas are in for possibly the quickest turnaround in conditions. Temperatures are set to rise above freezing by Sunday and will remain mild throughout the next week.
“That’s good news for our pheasants,” said Matt Morlock, Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever’s North Dakota and South Dakota state coordinator. “Last week’s storm was unusual, it’s out of the ordinary for us to see that much snow this early in the winter. So, the thaw coming next week will be beneficial for bird populations.”
Winter Cover is Critical
Snow, driven by high winds, is the most serious winter threat for both wildlife and people. But quality winter cover can help alleviate Mother Nature’s wrath.
Multi-row coniferous shelterbelts around farmsteads keep snow out and create a favorable microclimate that reduces energy needs by 30-plus percent. Dense winter roosting habitats (cattail marshes, native grasses, and beefy shelterbelts) do the same thing for pheasants, blunting wind-chill and blizzards. To appreciate that, stand upright in switchgrass in a shrieking, sub-zero wind. Now get horizontal. The microclimate at pheasant level is downright balmy by comparison.
Obviously, it’s too late to help local wildlife now that winter has taken a strong hold in the norther states. But it’s never too early to start planning winter cover projects for the years ahead. Contact your local Farm Bill biologist RIGHT NOW and turn your plan into reality.