Better times for pheasants

PHEASANTS are easier to see when there is snow on the ground. Easier for people obviously since the plumage of this popular game bird stands in contrast to an all white snowy landscape. And pheasants must also be on the lookout for predators on the ground (fox or coyote) or in the air (hawks or eagles). Good escape cover helps pheasants slip into places that predators find hard to follow.

Today’s image was made not far from the Iowa River Wildlife Area located near the Sand Road northwest of Marshalltown. Habitat in the form of food plots and native grasses/forbs were planted last Spring. Those food and cover sites are undoubtedly just one part of the survival puzzle for this bird and its other five rooster friends this scribe observed mid-week. It was nice to see them. And I’m not the only one seeing birds. Several wide spread locations in the county were the chance happenings of friends that saw roosters along rural roadways. This wild stock will be the carry-over into 2016’s fall population.

This scribe has been asked if pen-raised pheasants is a good idea to try on a large scale state-wide basis. As a biologist, my answer to that is a big “no.” Most states with little to no upland habitat have scrutinized this scenario many times during many past decades. It comes up as a non-starter and a foolhardy endeavor every time. Two factors above all else are the main drivers – habitat and weather. Mother Nature controls the weather. Man can control habitat. Providing adequate habitat with the right amount of quality are essential elements to long range habitat plantings.

The most cost effective thing to do for upland wildlife including pheasants is habitat. One gets way more value for their money invested when on the ground plantings of the right mix of grasses and forbs is put into the soil of a food/cover crop. An area does not have to be large to be successful. It does need to big enough however to allow the pheasants to make a living. Surviving through a winter is critical.

According to Pheasants Forever, they too have looked at artificial stocking of pen raised birds. This is not a simple solution to a complex problem. PF found that predation accounted for roughly 90 percent of deaths to pen-raised birds. After one week in a wild setting, pen-raised birds lost 60 percent of their numbers the first week. After a month, only 25 percent remained. By the time a winter has ended, maybe only 5-10 percent of these pheasants were alive. A natural wariness seems to be lacking.

Pen-raised birds have their place as stock for shooting preserves, a put and take enterprise that is especially helpful for youth and dog training. These operations are very small scale compared to what would be required to fill a huge state-wide “gap” of pheasants. DNR officials do not have the money for one thing, but they do have the biological knowledge to know that pen-raised birds is a waste of time and money.

A healthy landscape of diverse grassland acres has worked in the past. Conservation Reserve Programs did at one time excel in providing this habitat. However, commodity prices have highs and lows. If the trend is for higher prices for crops, grassland habitats suffer. When commodity prices are low and stay low, the incentive might return to put marginal acres back into grass. As in everything, it involves tradeoffs. The tradeoffs have been on the short end of the stick during the last 10 years as existing CRP acres went out of contract. Iowa has lost CRP acres equivalent to a strip of land nine miles wide stretching from Davenport to Council Bluffs.

Another friend told this scribe of his recent journey to Montana. Outside of Livingston, Mont., he and others traversed grasslands in a short half day walkabout. He said “he had never seen so many pheasants in all his life.” What makes the difference between Iowa and Montana. Permanent grassland. Obviously Iowa land is well suited to high intensive agricultural practices. One cannot say that about Montana soils, many of which are best left in grass and used for rotational grazing for cattle.

Iowa can do better in its efforts for the ring-necked pheasant. The question is will we make the commitment of time and prudent land uses to make spaces available for upland game and non-game species. It can be done if we want to bad enough.

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PHEASANTS FOREVER (PF) and its sister organization QUAIL FOREVER (QF) is a charity friendly organization. Money donated to this cause is well spent. The leaders of PF have qualified many times for high rankings by watch-dog groups that track how donated funds are used. PF has about 140,000 members. QF has another 13,000. Sixty-five percent of the funds taken in are used for habitat improvements, 20 percent for land acquisition, 8 percent for public awareness, 3 percent for habitat equipment and 4 percent for conservation education. PF makes the money it gets work toward long term solutions where it really counts.

Since Pheasants Forever’s formation in 1982, 179,000 acres involving 1,442 land acquisitions have taken place. And PF is active in a program for youth … No Child Left Indoors. This program dedicates through its members opportunities to partner with youth and their families to share outdoor traditions and teach conservation ethics.

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The NEW YEAR is here at last. Welcome 2016 and goodbye 2015. So what is on your resolution list for 2016? Here are a few of this scribes offerings in this regard.

One: Resolve to work for positive long-term solutions to difficult circumstances. I know that is not easy. But since when is easy the best route to take. Short-term expediency over long-term tried and true hard work may be a norm for some folks. Future analysis and look backs at history tend to favor the latter, not the former.

Two: One can spend too much money on failing causes. On the other hand, one cannot economize your way to success. There is a balance obviously that can be illusive to find, and difficult but not impossible to implement. Hurray for all forward thinkers and doers that strive for economical, practical solutions that really do produce results toward long term goals.

Three: Facts matter. Get the facts first, and leave rumor in its proper place which is not to allow it to happen in the first place. This scribe already knows how society in general will deal with this one and it is not pretty. But I’ll stick to this resolution that facts matter, always have and always will.

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“Who is the happier man, he who braved the storm of life and lived, or he who has stayed securely on shore and merely existed?”

– Hunter S. Thompson,

journalist and writer

Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at PO Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.