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Heavy snow is no friend to vulnerable ringnecks. (1-14-05)
Heavy snow might be good for skiers and showshoers, but it's no friend to many species of wildlife, notably pheasants. Less than a week after the close of the season, Iowa's top gamebird already is feeling stress of a different kind.
"Pheasants start feeling the effects of snow cover right away because it makes it more difficult for them to find food," said Todd Bogenschutz, upland game biologist for the Department of Natural Resources. "But right now the biggest risk for them is predation. I hear people say, 'Boy you should see all the birds out there now.' Well, the birds are all bunched up together now, and that white background allows you to see them at 300 yards."
The snow also makes it easer for red fox, hawks and owls, and occasionally coyotes and feral cats, to see them, too.
"Our hen survival rate was probably between 90 and 95 percent going into the winter," Bogenschutz said. "But this weather is starting to pick away at them. The native grasses are all filled in pretty well, and that pushes the birds into more woody areas where they're in closer contact with predators."
Healthy pheasants can survive from 17 to 20 days without food in normal winter conditions, Bogenschutz said. But a sprawling blanket of snow like that which currently covers much of the state can spell doom much sooner to vulnerable birds.
"We've done some studies that suggest for every week the ground is white, we lose three percent of the hens," Bogenschutz said. "So any moderation we can get in the weather - a little thaw or even heavy rain which takes the snow down in a hurry - helps. It gives them a chance to find food, and a black background offers a little extra protection from predators."
Poor weather dealt the state's pheasant population a setback last spring when heavy rains ruined nesting conditions in many places around Iowa. Roadside surveys in August dropped 34 percent from 2003, and Bogenschutz predicted at that time harvest numbers would fall below 1 million, which is considered the benchmark for a quality hunting season.
With the close of the season Monday, Bogenschutz expects the harvest to be somewhere around 800,000, down from 1.1 million a year ago. He won't know for sure, however, until the DNR sends and receives back postcard surveys from 10,000 hunters.
"I think the best way to sum up the season is so-so," he said. "I think there were enough birds to keep people interested, but it wasn't as good as the year before."
According to a 2001 U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service recreation survey, pheasant hunting brings in $53.2 million annually to Iowa. That includes costs for equipment, hunting, lodging and food.


Pheasant harvest totals in Iowa in the past 10 years plus projected harvest for this season. 1994 1,245,580 1995 1,443,010 1996 1,367,060 1997 1,340,050 1998 1,237,980 1999 899,174 2000 1,001,867 2001 470,116 2002 729,460 2003 1,080,466 2004 800,000 ???
Source: Iowa Department of Natural Resources

Outdoors writer Todd Burras can be reached at 232-2161, Ext. 347, or at

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