SCOTT RALL COLUMN: Where have all the roosters gone?
WORTHINGTON -- I was hoping to make it 'til the New Year without any snow.
No snow at all would have been better.
A few inches of rain in March needs no shoveling.
But the snow is here and that is to be expected. And with the snow comes the winding down of the season's hunting opportunities, with the pheasant hunting season closing Jan. 1.
I wait all year and, in the blink, of an eye my favorite 10 weeks evaporates. I get asked all the time if pheasant hunting hurts pheasant populations. The answer is found in pheasant biology. The harvesting of roosters in all but the most extreme cases has little to no effect on overall pheasant populations.
I will explain why this is.
In the land of pheasant roosters and pheasants, in general, the life expectancy -- including mortality from all causes -- is only a little more than 12 months. Many pheasants die of predation or weather before they make it to seven days old. With these early losses, even if a few birds make it to their second or third birthday, it is a very, very small percentage.
A rooster pheasant spends his spring days crowing and displaying his colors to attract a girlfriend. The fact is he is really looking for a dozen or more girlfriends and will mate with all of the hens in his vicinity. Roosters fight over this right and, from all the research, there are no hens that fail to be bred as they enter the nesting and egg-laying seasons. If, in the spring, there was one rooster for each hen or one rooster for 20 hens, the pheasant population will be the same in October.
As long as all of the hens are bred, the result the following fall will be the highest population possible from the surviving hens present in the spring. There are many factors that affect pheasant populations and they have nothing to do as a result of hunting.
Weather conditions in the spring have a great impact on nesting success and chick survival. A cold, soaking rain at the wrong time can kill off a great percentage of the chicks that are in the early stages of their life.
I read in a report some years ago that it takes the following rooster-to-hen ratios to achieve the following results. You need one rooster per 42 hens to sustain a population and two roosters per 42 hens to grow a population. This report went on to say that in many areas of the pheasant range, the ratio, after the conclusion of the hunting season in most areas, is one rooster per 14 hens and in Minnesota there is usually one rooster per four hens after the season closes.
What this says to me is that even if many more roosters were harvested by hunters in Minnesota, there would be far more than enough to bring off a successful hatch the following spring.
It is an undisputed fact that the No. 1 thing that affects overall populations for pheasants is habitat. The No. 1 limiting factor for pheasant success and population expansion in most areas is undisturbed grassland habitat. Birds need grassland habitat that is big enough and of high enough quality to be able to reproduce successfully.
Road ditches have many acres of grass, if you add them all up. The problem for a hen-nesting in these areas is that they are narrow and easy for a predator to locate and kill the hen, eat the eggs or dine on the chicks. Large blocks of habitat have the best nesting success for pheasants and all other ground nesting birds.
The issue at hand today is that in most areas of southwest Minnesota there is very little undisturbed grassland. In most areas, less that 4 percent of all land acres are in some form of grass. The grassland that exists is smaller parcels of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and other federal farm program acres. These acres are going under the plow at an astonishing rate.
Grassland CRP farm payments can in no way keep up with the profit margin of corn and beans. The future of pheasants and other wildlife populations are facing their own kind of fiscal cliff.
Many people armed with the accurate information come to the same conclusion as me.
Hunting does not hurt pheasant populations. But for those who choose to ignore the science and instead concentrate on the emotion-only side of the equation, those who think there would be 100 times more pheasants, if they were not hunted, I always end my conversation with this thought: Who spends more time, money and effort on the behalf of pheasants and other wildlife than the hunter who pursues them?
Do the non-hunting or anti-hunting members of the state spend money for the benefit of pheasants or other wildlife? The answer for 95 percent of them is just plain NO. I am very proud to say that locally, our Pheasants Forever Chapter has many loyal supporters who do not hunt and still support pheasants and their habitat. They are well-informed and we are very fortunate to have them.
Toward the end of the season, I see fewer roosters and this year is no different. Part of the reason is there are fewer roosters on the land due to hunter harvest.
I think the main reason I see fewer roosters in the last month of the season is because they are just plain smarter than me. The hens will sit and be flushed and the roosters have covered a half-mile on foot before I even step into the spot.
The daily limit on roosters is two for the first part of the season and switches to three in December. From my experience, they could make the limit 10 in December and for most years it would make no difference. If most hunters can't even get one or two how could they ever get 10? I am in no way saying the limit should be 10, but from a harvest point of view, most years it would not matter.
What pheasants need most is more well-informed, dedicated hunters and non-hunters who care enough to help ensure they have enough of the undisturbed grasslands required to thrive.
You can help in this effort by buying your favorite someone a membership to Pheasants Forever. Call my office at Rall Financial Services and I will help you get this hooked up. Have a great Christmas and spend some time outdoors in the tall grass.
Scott Rall is The Daily Globe's outdoor columnist. His column can also be read weekly at www.dglobe.com