On Saturday, 50,000 or more pheasant hunters took to the state’s hinterlands looking for a rooster or two to put to wing. Most were unsuccessful.
Which in itself isn’t remarkable, because opening day of Minnesota pheasant hunting circa 2018 is in some ways a caricature of its former self.
The opener was once an opportunity for first-generation Twin Cities residents to return home to Slayton, Marshall, Barrett, Madelia and a thousand other small towns in the state’s pheasant range, and to join with families there to find ringnecks in woodlots, roadsides and along fence lines that no longer exist. Today it is largely a scramble by die-hard uplanders to pinpoint the state’s relatively few birds that aren’t hiding in unharvested corn and soybean fields.
Which is OK. In a world that rewards convenience over challenge and comfort above all else, hunting — which fundamentally is an exercise in natural-food gathering — remains the rare pastime that is both physically demanding and intellectually stimulating.
Those who doubt the latter should try someday to outwit wild animals that hone their survival instincts 24 hours a day, seven days a week, year-round. Pheasants are such a species, as are deer, ruffed grouse and waterfowl, ducks particularly.
Yet the topic today is not so much the difficulties hunters did or did not encounter finding pheasants Saturday. The larger issue is the remarkable — and scary — indifference with which the general public greets news of species declines, including the pheasant’s, whose population ups and downs bear a direct relationship to farmland health, measured by habitat availability and especially insect abundance.
Readers of this newspaper might recall a story published in late September that carried the headline, “The bugs of summer are vanishing: Critical link in food chain seems in decline globally.”
The famed Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson, who once called bugs, “The little things that run the world,” was quoted in the story saying: “The flying insects are virtually gone.”
And with them, birds. Not just pheasants — in this instance, they’re simply one among many canaries in the coal mine — but meadowlarks, bobolinks, dickcissels, chimney swifts, purple martins, Hungarian partridge and others.
“Songbirds are definitely declining,” said Carrol Henderson, who retired recently as the longtime head of the Department of Natural Resources nongame department.
Habitat loss is a primary cause, as is increased farmland pesticide use. Minnesota’s vast native prairies that were replaced by vast acreages of corn and soybeans were inherently biodiverse and supported as many as 200 species of plants and the insects that depended on them to complete their life cycles.
Including egg, larva, pupa and adult, these cycles in turn supported other life-forms.
“When the food chain gets messed up, it reduces the carrying capacity of habitat,” Henderson said.
Europe, whose environmental problems often serve as cautionary tales for North America, has seen similar declines. Bird numbers in France have dropped by one-third in the last 15 years, and similar declines have been recorded across Europe.
In Germany, for example, a recent study found insects on nature reserves fell by 75 percent in the past 25 years.
“We appear to be making vast tracts of land inhospitable to most forms of life, and are currently on course for ecological Armageddon,” said Dave Goulson, a co-author of the study. “If we lose the insects, then everything is going to collapse.”
Like Harvard’s E.O. Wilson, Minnesota’s Bud Grant, at age 91, has been around the block a few times. A keen observer of nature, Grant believes bird declines he has seen in his lifetime signal a crisis.
“When we moved to Bloomington from Winnipeg in 1965, I immediately put up a purple martin house in our backyard,” Grant said. “The very day I put it up, we had purple martins in it. Now, I don’t see any purple martins, not in Bloomington or at our cabin in Wisconsin, where I also put up purple martin houses.”
Having just returned from North Dakota, where he hunted ducks, Grant said he misses times there and in western Minnesota and South Dakota when he heard meadowlarks sing.
“It’s not just meadowlarks, but blackbirds, too,” Grant said. “It used to be in fall that there were so many blackbirds in marshes that I had to wait for them to get out of the way so I could see if there were any ducks around.
“Not anymore. This spring, I had a red-winged blackbird, a male, return from down south and set up his territory in our yard. Every day he would sing his heart out, waiting for a female, because they typically migrate later. But she never came. I felt so sorry for that poor blackbird, and finally, on July 4, he disappeared.”
Crows also appear to have seen their sell-by date come and go, said Wendell Diller of Oakdale, whose passion is calling and hunting crows.
“This spring I drove all over central Minnesota and northwest Wisconsin,” Diller said. “I found a few crows. But nothing like it used to be. For all intents and purposes, they’re gone.”
To reiterate, the concern here is not the relative lack of game birds, which disturbs but doesn’t deter most hunters. As the novelist Tom McGuane once wrote, quoting Sitting Bull, “When the buffalo are gone, we will hunt mice, for we are hunters and we want our freedom.”
At issue instead is the remarkable — and scary — indifference with which the general public greets news of such declines, including the pheasant’s, whose population ups and downs bear a direct relationship to farmland health, measured by habitat availability and especially insect abundance.