Fall pheasant hunters will take a step back in time, as the season opens. Following August roadside surveys, the average number of birds seen on over 200 30-mile route was 6.5; virtually identical to the 6.6 posted in 2011. That count was the lowest in 60 years of summer surveys and preceded the lowest harvest in Iowa’s rich pheasant hunting history.
“Spring 2013 was terrible for ground nesting birds,” reviews DNR upland game research biologist Todd Bogenschutz. “Rainfall was the highest in 141 years of record keeping in Iowa. Over 15 inches fell in April and May; more than twice our normal rainfall.”
With the fifth coolest temperatures on record, survival of pheasant chicks plummeted. As a result, hunters should expect to harvest 100,000 to 150,000 pheasants during the October 28-January 10 season.
On the upside, good habitat will still yield results.
“Hunters will find birds in those good core areas; with winter habitat and nesting cover. Northwest and north central Iowa are still holding in there,” noted Bogenschutz.
Iowa’s pheasant harvest has dropped in most of the last 20 years; due to the loss of good habitat and--in many years--poor weather. That reality was knifed home by a five year streak (2006-2011) of winters with 30 plus inches of snow. Winter mortality for Iowa’s favorite gamebird is higher, during extended snow cover.
Through 2012, hopes were buoyed with normal winter and spring weather. The August count rose significantly. In fact, though…the 16 percent increase in pheasants along summer roadsides was even higher.
In the grip of a drought, summer fields were bone-dry. Pheasants did not need to come out to the roads to escape the heavy dew. As a result, many were simply not counted. As 2012 harvest reports came in, it was apparent that overall pheasant numbers were likely up 41 percent.
With ideal (heavy dew) conditions during the 2013 survey period, the drop from 2012 should be well below the 18 percent shown.
Most telling in this year’s survey is the lower number of young pheasants. Statewide, 26 percent fewer chicks were tallied, indicative of the poor nesting season.
Bogenschutz says overwintering survival of adult birds was better than expected. The exception there was across parts of central and east central Iowa, where a December blizzard dropped a foot of heavy, wet snow. It collapsed all the grassy cover, lowering chances of birds making it through the rest of the winter.
Looking ahead, wildlife officials say year to year weather as well as long term farm policy holds the keys to pheasant recovery. Right now, Iowa about 2.8 million acres of adequate cover; hayfields, small grain acres and Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) contracts to support an annual harvest of 600,000-800,000 pheasants.
“It will take four to five years of great weather--annual increases of 50-60 percent--to get pheasant numbers up to that level. Less than that? It might take eight years,” forecasts Bogenschutz.
Farm policy, meanwhile, seems as undependable as the weather. Iowa will see 185,926 acres (291 square miles) of CRP contracts expire this fall. That compares to just 47,400 acres re-enrolled in the critical conservation program.
On a positive note, Iowa was awarded a new continuous signup practice ‘SAFE,’ designed to boost pheasant recovery. It could idle 50,000 acres, if landowners take advantage of it.
And as the federal budget year approaches (October 1), the future of the next U.S. Farm Bill remains shrouded in Congress. That, in turn, creates more uncertainty on the part of farmers when making crop planting or conservation decisions.
Upland game surveys are applied over nine regions in Iowa. Results from 2013 were varied…complicated by a drought in 2012 and record ‘wet’ in spring 2013.
Northwest (12.3 pheasants per route) and north central (9) showed declines….yet still offer Iowa’s best pheasant counts. Northeast Iowa (2.7) traditionally has low pheasant counts. This year, it actually doubled; raising the concern that ideal survey conditions just meant birds that were missed in 2012, were counted in 2013).
Across Iowa’s middle, the west central region (5.4) indicates good overwinter survival for adults and fair nesting success. The central (7.9) and east central (3.8) regions tallied fewer adults; a result of that December blizzard…and smaller brood sizes; a sign of very poor nesting.
Across southern Iowa, numbers were stable (Southwest 2.8, South central 4.9, Southeast 6.3), when compared to 2012. Adults seem to have overwintered well. Chick recruitment was poor in southwest and southeast Iowa; about the same in south central.
Quail, Partridge, Rabbits
Though pheasants take center stage, the annual upland game surveys small game species, too. Bobwhite quail and gray partridge are more regional sightings; quail across the south, partridge in the more open northern landscape.
This year, quail were seen at a frequency of 0.4 birds statewide; relatively unchanged in the last six years…but well below the 10-year and long-term averages. Iowa has 33,000 CRP acres (CP 33 program) many around southern Iowa crop fields, to foster quail expansion.
Partridge averaged 0.9 birds per route, down slightly but showing variability throughout the state. Still, numbers have not been this low since the 1960s.
Eastern cottontail rabbits marked the only statewide ‘plus’ on the 2013 counts. Surveys showed 5.2 on average; a significant hike…and close to the 10-year and long-term averages. And, yes, cottontails tend to reproduce well in years with abundant spring and early summer rains.