Hawkeye State Pheasant Forecast

Hawkeye State Pheasant Forecast

Despite a challenging winter and spring, Iowa's pheasant population promises some steady action across the state this fall. Where will you take to the tall grass this season? (September 2008)

It's all about location for pheasant hunters this fall. Thanks to a harsh winter and spring, Hawkeye pheasant numbers may well vary widely on opening day.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

The good news and bad news, all in one sentence: Pheasant hunting prospects for this fall in Iowa will range from "easy" to "extra effort required." It all depends on where in the state you hunt.

Hunters in some parts of the state will fill their daily limit before 9 a.m., within a half-mile of their truck. Hunters on the other side of the state will feel lucky to get a shot at a couple roosters after traipsing for miles and hours without flushing more than scattered, lonely hens. The wide variations in pheasant numbers that hunters will see on opening day are the results of the erratic weather Iowa experienced last winter and spring.

"If you want to predict pheasant populations in an area where you intend to hunt this fall, look back on what the weather was like in that area during April and May," says Todd Bogenschutz, an upland wildlife biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. "Those are the critical months of the year when it comes to determining how many birds we'll have to hunt in the fall."

Bogenschutz says cool, wet weather during pheasant nesting -- and especially during the weeks immediately following the hatch -- often results in lower pheasant numbers when fall arrives.

"The chicks don't have much stamina right after they hatch and can't thermo-regulate (or maintain their body temperature) very well," he says. "Cool weather is hard on them, but cool, wet weather really clobbers them. Once they get wet from rain or from moving around in wet grass, they can't get warmed up and we see high mortality."

Low insect numbers are a second slam against newly hatched pheasant chicks in a cool, wet spring. Chicks feed almost exclusively on insects after they hatch. They don't add grains or seeds to their diets until they're several weeks old. Cool, wet weather inhibits insect hatches, decreases insect mobility and can deprive pheasant chicks of their primary food source, with fatal results.

Even before spring arrived this year, many hunters were concerned that last winter's brutal weather had harmed Iowa's pheasant hunting prospects for this fall. Bogenschutz acknowledged that the extended period of harsh weather caused pheasant losses, especially in eastern and southeastern Iowa.

"Through Feb. 19, east-central Iowa averaged 51 inches of snow, compared to an average snowfall of 24 to 31 inches of snow for an entire winter," he said. "We ran the heavier-than-normal snowfall and other factors through some computer models, and predicted that east-central, northeast and southeast Iowa might have had up to 60 percent pheasant mortality by the time spring arrived."

Bogenschutz noted that pheasant mortality in an average Iowa winter (25 inches of snow) is around 30 percent, and that pheasant losses were "acceptable" away from the snowbelt that blanketed the eastern third of the state last winter.

"West-central Iowa had less snow than average, so their losses were below average," he says. "Northwest Iowa had slightly higher than average snowfall. We calculated (northwest Iowa's) pheasant mortality last winter was around 40 percent, which isn't a problem if spring weather was good and they got off a good hatch and had good chick survival."

The brutal winter in eastern Iowa and above-average pheasant losses had many hunters predicting doom and gloom for this year's hunting season, but Bogenschutz is upbeat.

"The winter mortality isn't good, but given a favorable spring, pheasants have an amazing reproductive capacity," he says. "The August roadside count is the final indicator, but my gut feeling is that pheasant numbers will be down in northeast, east-central and southeast Iowa. If the weather was favorable last spring, they could come back, but I doubt we'll see anything better than what we had last year.

"Northwest Iowa will be about the same as last year or maybe a little better, and southwest Iowa will be about the same," says Bogenschutz. "West-central Iowa might be our bright spot. They had less than average snowfall last winter, and with a good spring, they could have equal or higher pheasant numbers than last year."

The best indicator of pheasant populations around the state prior to hunting season is the annual August Roadside Survey that Bogenschutz mentioned above. Representatives of the IDNR drive long, established routes on rural roads early on August mornings and count the pheasants they see along the roadsides. After decades of gathering and analyzing data from the roadside counts, biologists are able to project actual pheasant numbers available for the upcoming hunting season with impressive accuracy.

Results of the roadside survey are released early each September and reported through media outlets across Iowa. Thanks to modern technology, hunters can get roadside survey reports delivered to their computers. Go to www.iowadnr.com, click on "Hunting and Wildlife" on the left side of the page, then scroll through the options on the right side of the Web page that opens. Look for and open a link to the August Roadside Survey for the final official statewide pheasant forecast.

Hindsight and analysis of past weather patterns are useful in explaining why pheasant numbers are up or down, but the real question as hunting season approaches is, "Where will we find birds this November?" Aside from his earlier regional predictions (Eastern third of the state: fewer birds. West central: more birds. Northwest and southwest: pheasant numbers similar to last year.) Bogenschutz again referred to last winter to help hunters find pheasants this fall.

"There are positive things to be learned from last winter," he says. "That sort of tough winter points out where to find birds. It really emphasized that small, 1- or 2-acre food plots and chunks of habitat kind of fade out when the weather really gets rough. They work and hold pheasants 8 out of 10 years, but in those other 2 years, they don't do pheasants much good."

Shannon Hansel, Pheasants Forever Habitat Team Coordinator from Riverside, Iowa, says small food and habitat plots favor predation.

"Research shows that predators work the edges of large areas of habitat hard, but don't get very far into the middle of those big areas,"

says Hansel. "Small areas are better hunting grounds for predators and easier for us human hunters to hunt, so they get picked over pretty early in the season. Larger areas -- 20 acres and larger -- are harder for predators to hunt and less apt to be completely hunted by (human) hunters. The later it is in the season, especially if the weather has gone bad, the more pheasants will be in the interiors of larger food plots and areas of habitat."

Two other types of habitat that provide pheasants with good cover in early fall, late fall and into winter are brushy fencerows or field borders. Pheasants Forever research shows that brushy habitat adjacent to farm fields or some sort of food plot is very attractive and useful to pheasants and therefore a prime area for hunters to explore.

"Hawks and owls can't perch in low, brushy cover like they can in tall trees," says Hansel. "Coyotes and foxes can hunt along the edges of the brushy stuff, but aren't able to wiggle through the cover as quickly as pheasants can, so it's tough hunting for them. So low, brushy cover is prime pheasant habitat, especially early in the season."

If there is a positive aspect to last winter's severe weather in southeast and east-central Iowa, it comes as a result of the fierce ice storm that signaled the onset of two months of nearly nonstop nasty weather. Heavy ice deposits during that storm brought down uncounted tree branches, which are exactly the sort of pheasant-friendly habitat Pheasants Forever has been promoting.

"It's called "Edge Feathering," says Hansel. "The idea is to cut partially through trees and large shrubs in fencerows so that they fall over but are still attached and continue to produce twigs and leaves where they touch the ground. We're finding that it produces excellent small game habitat."

The big ice storm of '07 accidentally produced lots of "Edge Feathering" in southeast Iowa. Trees along the edges of timbers and lines of trees in fencerows were especially hard-hit by the combination of heavy ice loads and strong winds. Tons of branches now litter those areas, providing a flush of pheasant-friendly habitat. Hansel and other PF representatives encouraged landowners to leave the ice storm residue in place to benefit wildlife.

"Watch those spots and you're going to be surprised how much wildlife uses that brushy, branchy habitat when it's on the ground," he says. "If you're still cleaning up from last winter's storms, don't pile all the stuff up and burn it. Just push it into piles out of the way and leave them for wildlife habitat."

Another lesson learned from last winter's severe weather is that public hunting areas and preserves are prime pheasant habitat. Many hunters consider public areas second to private lands. The general consensus among hunters is that the public areas have a lot of birds, but they get hit hard on opening day and are over-hunted by the second weekend of the season."

Pheasants Forever's Hansel acknowledges that public areas get a lot of attention on opening day but considers them prime hunting spots throughout the hunting season. He reminds skeptics of his earlier comments about how predators can't effectively hunt large areas of habitat.

"The same applies to human hunters," he says. "Even if we've got good dogs, it's tough to get every bird out of the sort of habitat that there is in a big public area. Plus, as the weather gets colder, pheasants from surrounding private lands often move into public areas to take advantage of the food and shelter. So not only do public areas have their home-grown birds that escape hunters because of heavy cover, but that local population gets reinforced as winter weather drives birds from private property into those public areas."

While Iowa may not have tens of thousands of acres in individual public hunting areas, it has hundreds and hundreds of smaller county- and state-managed wildlife areas. Areas like the Big Creek Lake Wildlife Management Area in northern Polk County, the 10,000-acre-plus Hawkeye Wildlife Area in Johnson County and smaller WMAs such as Snake Creek Marsh WMA in Greene County or Meadow Lake WMA in Adair County should never be underestimated.

To identify WMAs near you, go to www.iowadnr.com and click on "Hunting and Wildlife" on the left side of the page. Click on "Hunting and Trapping" on the left side of the page that opens. Look for the heading "Wildlife Management Areas" in the middle of the page that appears, then sort through the index of counties to find potential pheasant hunting opportunities near you.

It has been a longstanding tradition for polite hunters to ask and receive permission to hunt pheasants on private property in Iowa. Though leasing of pheasant hunting rights is on the increase, most observers feel that it's not the problem that is developing over leased rights to hunt deer.

"We're watching it closely and trying to stay ahead of it," says Bogenschutz. "So far, I hear about it most in east-central Iowa, around Iowa City. I think that's because there's pretty good habitat in that area, good numbers of pheasants in a normal year, and it's a natural place for nonresident hunters from Illinois, Indiana and other states that use Interstate 80 to enter the state to look for places to hunt."

Concerns that hunting leases might slowly erode Iowa hunters' access to privately owned property has spurred the IDNR to investigate a pilot program that would offer tax credits to landowners who allow public hunting on their property. It has been suggested that landowners receive a tax credit of $2 per acre per year for land enrolled in the program.

Some observers suggest that landowners interested in profiting from pheasant hunting on their property can usually lease hunting rights for more than $2 an acre, presumably making it more profitable to lease than to sign up for the state's proposed program.

Closer analysis seemingly makes the state's offer ultimately more profitable. If landowners lease their land, they have to pay taxes on the extra income. But if they sign up for the state's program, it lowers their calculated gross income and therefore reduces their taxes. Push a pencil for a bit, and for many landowners the proposed state tax credit program would generally be more favorable than to lease for profit.

"Plus," adds Bogenschutz, "if you lease your land, there are liability issues if someone gets hurt on your property. With the proposed state program, the landowner wouldn't be liable."

Bogenschutz says the proposed program is still in the exploratory stage. A sample of landowners was surveyed this year to gather their opinions on how to make such a program attractive to them. With luck and persistence, Iowa's pheasant hunters may see expanded public hunting opportunities courtesy of the tax credit program within the next five years.

A bright spot that is already benefiting pheasant hunting prospects this year in Iowa is the continued expansion of buffer strips throughout the state. Buffer strips are bands of land seeded to natural

grasses and wildlife-friendly plantings that border creeks, streams and farm fields.

"Nobody in the country can touch (Iowa) for the number of acres entered in buffer strips," says Bogenschutz. "Pheasants Forever has been really active in helping us develop that idea, and it has really paid off."

Matt O'Connor, a Pheasants Forever representative from Hopkinton, Iowa, said that buffer strips and other habitat programs have salvaged pheasant hunting in northwest Iowa.

"We lost a million acres of (Conservation Reserve Program) ground in northwest Iowa back in the mid-90s, and things looked pretty bleak for pheasant hunting in that corner of the state," he says. "But between the IDNR and projects by Pheasants Forever, we've regained that million acres of habitat and are adding to it every year."

Ultimately, habitat is the foundation for pheasant hunting in Iowa. Good habitat allows pheasants to thrive in our weather and maximize production -- if spring weather favors nesting and brood rearing. Because there are areas of good habitat scattered all across the state, there are pockets of strong pheasant numbers even in tough years like 2008.

If you're in the southeastern half of Iowa on opening day of this year's pheasant hunting season, realize that there are still a lot of pheasants in your region -- just not a surplus. If you're in the northwestern half of the state, enjoy another average year, with pheasants in all the traditional locations.

There will be good pheasant harvests in Iowa this fall, and there will be disappointing pheasant harvests. But there will be good pheasant hunting all across the state, because the fun is in the time spent with friends enjoying a crisp fall day surrounded by an Iowa landscape tinted in shades of gold and tan beneath a bright blue sky.

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