Skip to main content

Iowa Pheasant Decline: What has Happened?

Part I of II

Iowa Pheasant Decline: What has Happened?
Iowa Pheasant Decline: What has Happened?
Iowa pheasant hunters harvested more than one million birds annually 33 times since 1962. Since 2000, that’s happened only twice. In the upcoming season, the projected harvest of 150,000 to 200,000 is expected to set another record low. With its title of Pheasant Capital of North America gone for more than a decade, Iowa seems destined to be an afterthought in pheasant hunting circles.

How has the once grand tradition of hundreds of thousands of hunters heading to the Iowa countryside each autumn become nearly nonexistent?

This is the first in a four part series looking at pheasants past, present and future in Iowa.

Pheasants arrive, thrive in Iowa

As the Pheasant Population Goes, So Go the Hunters

Iowa hosted 30,000 to 50,000 nonresident pheasant hunters in years past. They stayed for days in small town hotels, ate in the cafés down the street and bought supplies from local stores; a multi-million dollar shot in the arm for small town Main Street.


“It was pretty common to see hunters from Michigan, Georgia, Texas and every state around us,” said Rich Jordet, law enforcement supervisor for the DNR in northwest Iowa. “I remember checking hunters from 14 different states on opening day.”


Nonresident license sales also provided a boost in Iowa’s Fish and Wildlife Trust Fund.

Wild pheasants were brought over from China by Owen Denny in 1882 to establish a population in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. That initial stocking and other imports from China are the sources for current day ringnecks across the U.S.

Iowa’s wild population came through an accidental release of the Oregon birds’ descendants.

An early 1900s wind storm turned loose 2,000 wild pheasants from William Benton’s Cedar Falls game farm to Iowa’s patchwork of small grain, hay and corn fields and pastures. They thrived, eventually prompting crop damage complaints.




By 1913, the Iowa Conservation Commission, the forerunner of the Department of Natural Resources, was stocking hatchery raised pheasants’ anticipating creation a hunting season. Results, though, were mixed.

In 1924-25, the Commission began to trap and relocate wild birds and eggs to southern Iowa.

Iowa’s first pheasant season was October 20-22, 1925 in Kossuth, Humboldt, Winnebago, Hancock, Wright, Cerro Gordo, Franklin, Mitchell, Floyd, Butler, Grundy, Black Hawk and Bremer counties. The season opened one-half hour before sunrise and ended at noon with a bag limit of three cocks.


“It appears that the first counties opened to pheasant hunting were also those where complaints of pheasants caused crop damage were common,” said Todd Bogenschutz, upland wildlife biologist for the Iowa DNR.

In 1932, state game farms closed, but reopened in 1938 after several poor weather years. Better weather in the ‘40s helped bird populations recover. By 1945, most of northern Iowa was open to hunting. Through the 1940s and ’50s, it became apparent that pen-raised pheasants were not contributing to wild bird numbers. Yet, by 1965, pheasant hunters spread across Iowa, save for a few southeastern counties.

Populations Ebb and Flow

Northwest, north-central and central Iowa held the most pheasants through the 1950s. However, since the 1960s, changes in agriculture led to a decline in pheasant numbers. By the early 1970s, southern Iowa had become the premier pheasant range. The last state game farm was closed in 1973 and entire state was opened to hunting in 1976.

Pheasant populations in the northern and central regions rebounded with establishment of the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) between 1985 and 1996. Counts rose in the southern counties, initially, but have declined steadily since 1992.

Even in its heyday, with hunters consistently harvesting more than 1 million roosters annually, clouds hung over Iowa’s pheasant population.

Since 1962, populations and brood size have declined. Changes in farming practices greatly reduced grassy field corners and fence rows. Advances in seed genetics nearly eliminate weeds and allow crops to be planted closer together.

But weather is THE major factor influencing pheasant numbers.

Cold, snowy winters reduce marginal habitat and concentrate pheasants and predators. By spring, much nesting habitat is reduced to road ditches, terraces and grassed water ways, where spring rains flood nests and drown chicks.

“The bottom line is weather trumps all when it comes to hen survival and nesting success,” said Bogenschutz. “Tell me the amount of snowfall, the amount of rain and the temperature in the spring, and I can tell you if pheasant counts will be up or down that summer. The weather models are that accurate. We are now in a weather pattern of five consecutive winters with heavy snow and springs with lots of rain. That has not happened in 50 years.”

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

New for 2021: Elite Archery Bows, Slick Trick Broadheads and CBE Sight

New for 2021: Elite Archery Bows, Slick Trick Broadheads and CBE Sight

Learn more about two new Elite Archery bows, the Enkore and Remedy, two new broadhead from Slick Trick and a new site from Custom Bow Equipment (CBE).

New for 2021: Bear Redemption EKO, Legit RTH Compound Bows

New for 2021: Bear Redemption EKO, Legit RTH Compound Bows

Bear Archery's newest bows - Redemption EKO and Legit RTH - are light, adjustable and fast.

New for 2021: Excalibur Crossbow, BowTech Bows, TightSpot Quiver, Ripcord Rests, Black Gold Sights

New for 2021: Excalibur Crossbow, BowTech Bows, TightSpot Quiver, Ripcord Rests, Black Gold Sights

New for 2021 are several hunter-defined products, such as the Excalibur TwinStrike Crossbow, BowTech Solution and Solution SS Bows, TightSpot Pivot 2.5 Quiver, Ripcord Cage and Code Red X arrowrests, and Black Gold Pro FX and Pro Hunter HD sights.

New for 2021: Hoyt RX-5, RX-5 Ultra, Ventum 30 and Ventum 33

New for 2021: Hoyt RX-5, RX-5 Ultra, Ventum 30 and Ventum 33

ATA 2021 NeDuring this video from the Archery Trade Association's New Product Premiere showcase, Bowhunter's TV Mike Carney visited with Evan Williams, pro staff manager for Hoyt Archery, to learn about the new RX-5, RX-5 Ultra, Ventum and Ventum 33 bows.w Product - Hoyt

See More Popular Videos

Trending Articles

The best jig fisherman are those that are always aware of what their jig is doing.4 Tips When Jig Fishing For Bass Bass

4 Tips When Jig Fishing For Bass

Chris Schneider - August 25, 2015

The best jig fisherman are those that are always aware of what their jig is doing.

Make this venison chorizo recipe and cook it right away or freeze it (cooked or raw) and use it as needed.Venison Chorizo Recipe Wild Game

Venison Chorizo Recipe

Allie Doran - October 30, 2020

Make this venison chorizo recipe and cook it right away or freeze it (cooked or raw) and use...

These affordable designs are big on features, short on cash outlay — ATA Show.New Crossbows Under $600 for 2021 ATA Show

New Crossbows Under $600 for 2021

Lynn Burkhead - January 14, 2021

These affordable designs are big on features, short on cash outlay — ATA Show.

Want to learn how to cook tasty walleye? This recipe includes three easy methods (on a grill, in a foil packet, and on a stovetop) that are sure to result in a delicious lunch or supper.Grilled Walleye Recipe Fish

Grilled Walleye Recipe

Raschell Rule - August 12, 2014

Want to learn how to cook tasty walleye? This recipe includes three easy methods (on a grill,...

See More Trending Articles

More Stories

Last year alone, the North American Wetlands Conservation Act was responsible for $100 million in funding to benefit game, fish and other wildlife in the United States.At Issue: Greenbacks for Greenheads (and Other Game) Conservation & Politics

At Issue: Greenbacks for Greenheads (and Other Game)

Andrew McKean - August 04, 2020

Last year alone, the North American Wetlands Conservation Act was responsible for $100 million...

Perspective from the opening day of deer season.Taking a Stand: Old and New Ways Can Both Be Right Whitetail

Taking a Stand: Old and New Ways Can Both Be Right

Jeff Johnston - December 17, 2020

Perspective from the opening day of deer season.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused us to re-examine many cherished traditions, but hunting remains an essential activity.Perspective: Why We Hunt Stories

Perspective: Why We Hunt

Andrew McKean - August 12, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused us to re-examine many cherished traditions, but hunting...

Could the northern stretches of the Lone Star State one day rival the south for big-buck supremacy?The Next Big Tex' for Trophy Bucks? Whitetail

The Next Big Tex' for Trophy Bucks?

Jordan Michaels - October 18, 2019

Could the northern stretches of the Lone Star State one day rival the south for big-buck...

See More Stories

Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Digital Now Included!

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE Arrow

Buy Digital Single Issues

Don't miss an issue.
Buy single digital issue for your phone or tablet.

Buy Single Digital Issue on the Game & Fish App

Other Magazines

Special Interest Magazines

See All Special Interest Magazines

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All Game & Fish subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit mymagnow.com and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now