RINGNECK PHEASANTS were introduced to the United States in 1881 to the Willamette Valley of Oregon. Thirty birds were shipped from China. Twenty seven survived the journey. Eleven years later, 1892, hunters in the valley had a 75 day season and estimates are they shot 50,000 birds! Over the next several decades, 40 of the 50 states obtained ringnecks and released them into farmland landscapes. By 1950, the pheasant population of the USA was at an all time high.
One's next thought might be ... just look at history and see how easy that was. All we have to do to get more pheasants is raise them in pens and let them go. Well folks, if the solution was that simple, conservation agencies of the various states would have been doing this long ago. A few states tried and soon learned how expensive and futile it was in the long run. Reality has a sneaky way of pounding sense into some people's heads.
Last year's Iowa Legislature had available to them a 56 page report on upland game birds. Experts from Iowa, South Dakota and other states were present to discuss what works and what doesn't. The report spelled out habitat concerns over and over again as the real long term solution. Habitat conditions of typical Midwest farmlands of the 1930s, 40s, 50s, 60s right up to the present were examined. Trend lines from past decades clearly showed how diversified farming practices disappeared. Add to that documented losses of available nesting conditions, weather comparisons and the advent of cleaner and cleaner farming methods over larger and larger fields have conspired against pheasants.
T-R PHOTO BY GARRY BRANDENBURG
A young ringneck pheasant prowled the grasses of a waterway in this image made last year in Marshall County. Natural and successful reproduction of pheasants in Iowa is highly dependent upon adequate habitat conditions, relatively warm and dry spring weather, and mild winters without heavy snow cover. The above conditions have not been what Iowa has experienced over the last several years. This places ringneck pheasants in a real bind. Starting July 1, 2010 landowners can legally purchase ringneck pheasants for release on their own land. Before one jumps to the conclusion that this is an easy fix to a complex problem, read the rest of the story.
In the end, the Iowa Legislature did what lots of legislatures are prone to do, look for simple solutions to complex problems, pass a law and then sit back to say ..."we did our part." Meanwhile back at reality ranch, long term trends of adverse weather in the spring, brutal deep snowy winters, losses of conservation reserve grassland contracts equal in area to a strip of land eight miles wide from Davenport to Council Bluffs, and a lack of thick winter cover continued to exact their toll on ringnecks.
Can pen raised ringnecks released in Iowa be expected to supplement wild birds and ultimately increase the overall population? Experts tend to say no. Wild birds have the right mental stuff to survive. Pen raised birds do not. In addition, they may just be 'sitting ducks' for predators. Then add to this mix unintended consequences of potential diseases such as avial influenza. Genetic dilution is another factor. Those certified pheasant raising facilities in Iowa are well aware of all these factors. They want what they raise to survive if possible. Only long term good habitat will give them the chance.
The Dakotas, for example, tend to have less snow, a naturally drier climate, and more permanent grasslands. In South Dakota, landowners are allowed to release birds into their fields, and charge big daily access fees for hunters. Hunters will see lots of birds for sure. Check out the advertisements in outdoor magazines from South Dakota outfitters and it doesn't take long to see that they are capitalizing on the situation.
However, it is now legal in Iowa for landowners to purchase ringnecks for release on their own land. If they have the money to burn and good habitat for the birds, they may see some short term benefits. To buy birds and release them into areas without any hope of overwinter survival is money wasted. Just be aware of a short term feel good euphoria that will disappear as quickly as it came.
What Iowa needs more than ever is a long string of warm dry springs so that wild nesting hen ringneck pheasants can have broods survive. Wild pheasants must have a production rate of roughly four chicks (surviving to 10 weeks) per hen. Additional help from retaining conservation reserve lands and/or replacement programs offered by the USDA may help. In light of the reality of how Iowa land is farmed today compared to 60 years ago, times have changed and the heyday of high natural populations of ringnecks is not likely to return.
If all the money once spent or currently being spent on supplemental stocking programs over the past 50 years in the US had been invested in long term habitat, hundreds of species in addition to ringneck pheasants would have benefited. To learn more about pheasants contact www.iowapheasantsforever.org.
Reminder, the local WILD TURKEY banquet will be held next Saturday evening, July 17, at the American Legion. Do check out this fund raising event and help the National Wild Turkey Federation with its programs.
Sunday, the Pine Lake Archers are holding a 3-D Archery Shoot at their range north of Pine Lake State Park. Registration opens at 7 a.m. and closes at noon. Get in some practice before the IBA Fall Festival in August and the fall hunting seasons. They'll be here before you know it.
Time is running out to sign up for the MCCB Brown Bag Bunch tour of the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge on July 20 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. The group will carpool from the Grimes Farm & Conservation Center. Register by July 12 by calling 752-5490.
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.