Minnesota pheasants are in a hole. In 2013, only 62,000 ringneck hunters went afield, bagging only 169,000 roosters — the fewest hunters and lowest harvest in 27 years. • Last year wasn't much better. • Yet pheasants can recover quickly. • In good weather, 1,000 springtime hens can multiply themselves fivefold by fall, a fantastic potential enjoyed by few other wild critters. • But good weather during the ringneck's nesting, hatching and brood-rearing period — approximately May through mid-July — has been difficult to come by of late. • Witness June 2014: “[It was] Minnesota's wettest June, and wettest month, of the modern record,” reports the Department of Natural Resources . “The state-averaged monthly rainfall total for June 2014 in Minnesota was 8.03 inches. The total was well more than the previous record of 7.32 inches set in July 1897.”
Worse, check out these record rainfall totals last June at key locales in the state’s pheasant range:
• Lakefield 10.96 inches.
• Waseca 12.31 inches.
• Luverne 13.84 inches.
• Redwood Falls 14.24 inches.
It’s true that habitat loss is the primary problem vexing Minnesota farmland wildlife, including pheasants.
Example: Nearly 700,000 Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres were withdrawn from that plan in Minnesota between 2008 and 2014. (The net loss was less because some CRP acres were added during the period.)
Yet habitat availability — or lack thereof — aside, without reasonably accommodating weather during the pheasant nesting season, substantial reproduction of these birds won’t be achieved.
So it is that now, exactly one year after the beginning of the rainiest June on record, Minnesota pheasant lovers hope anew that their favorite bird can recover at least part of its past population glory.
Will the state’s remaining hens multiply themselves five times over? Or will the pounding rains and cool temperatures that prevailed last June return to bedevil the state’s gaudiest, and wiliest, game bird?
Watching birds on the move
Nicole Davros is the DNR’s upland game project leader at the agency’s farmland wildlife research center in Madelia, Minn.
Since March, she and fellow researchers have been observing southern and southwest Minnesota pheasants closely. March is typically when pheasants begin moving from winter cover to more springtime environs. It’s also when crowing roosters begin to establish territories and seek mates.
This spring, Davros and her colleagues attached radio collars to 20 pheasant hens. Appearing like necklaces, the collars fit tightly enough to stay on, yet loosely enough to allow the birds to swallow large insects.
The collars allow the researchers to track the hens’ movements while they establish nests, lay and incubate eggs and raise chicks.
“We’re down to 18 birds with collars,” Davros said. “Two were lost to predators.’’
Working with fellow researcher Rachel Curtis, among others, Davros is hoping to fine-tune the DNR’s knowledge of nesting-hen habitat selection.
“We know habitat quantity is important to pheasants,” Davros said. “What we’re looking at with the collars is which habitat selections hens make for nest and chick survival. This is important so we know how diverse habitat should be when we establish it on wildlife management areas and other locations.”
Forbs — flowering plants — are of particular interest, Davros said, in large part for their value to pollinators, but also because they contribute to high insect abundance and diversity.
“Chicks will double their body weights in the first few days after they’re born, and to do that, they need insects,” Davros said.
Forbs interspersed with common grasses such as big bluestem also are valuable because they provide pathways for pheasant chicks to travel to find insects to eat without getting lost from their mothers or being nabbed by predators.
“Hopefully the radio collars will give us more insights into how hens and chicks use different habitats, so we can give that information to wildlife managers,” Davros said.
From eggs to chicks
Peak hatch time for Minnesota pheasants usually is the first two weeks of June. By then, hens have sufficiently incubated nests of 10 or 12 eggs, having laid one egg every 1.5 days, approximately.
Incubation lasts 23 to 28 days, depending on temperature, during which hens and eggs alike are at risk both to predators and heavy rains, which can wash out nests.
“Regardless of the threat, it’s hard to get an incubating hen off her nest,” Davros said. “They’ll sit tight even if they’re pounded by big hail.”
Chicks are especially vulnerable in the first few weeks after hatching, when they’re unable to warm themselves and oftentimes gather beneath their mothers to stay warm and dry.
“But if they have to stay with their mothers an entire day to survive because of the weather, that means they would go that day without foraging, which might make them weaker,” Davros said.
By three weeks of age, chicks can fly.
“Which is why we advocate ditches not be mowed until after Aug. 1,” Davros said. “They need that cover during the early parts of their lives.”
By five or six weeks, chicks have grown juvenile feathers and won’t be dependent on the hens for warmth.
Hen pheasants that bring off broods but lose them after hatching won’t re-nest. But hens whose eggs and nests are lost before chicks are hatched will re-nest, but often with fewer eggs.
So far this spring, Davros said, prospects for successful pheasant reproduction are good. Then again, June is just beginning.
“We don’t want it to just rain and keep raining,” she said. “So far, the rains we’ve gotten, we needed. Rains spur vegetation growth, which brings a flush of insects.
“And pheasants need insects.’’