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Winters like this key to record pheasant population

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It has always amazed me how people can remember what a winter was like three decades ago. People tell stories about this blizzard or that rain storm or the Wizard of Oz tornado back in '29. Now, my memory is as good as the next guy's is, but old weather events just don't stay with me very long. The winter of 2006-2007 just might be different.

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As of Thursday, Lake Okabena -- which is just out the front door of my office at Rall Financial Services -- is about one-third open water. The aeration system that normally keeps a small section of the lake open to avoid a winter kill of the fish that occupy it has not yet been turned on.

I keep telling myself that I really need to get over to my storage shed and get my snowblower home so, when it finally does snow in earnest, I will be ready. As each day passes without snow, I wonder if I can really make it through the entire winter with just a plastic snow shovel.

It is winters like this one and the ones of the past four years that have really been the key reason that southwest Minnesota has the record pheasant numbers it has. There is no question that harsh winter's take there toll on many different species of wildlife, but the real reason for this is not a very well-known fact. I have hunted pheasants for many years and have heard many stories of people telling me that they found 20-30 pheasants all dead in one spot after a bad blizzard. Some mortality does happen due to the actual storm, but by in large it is a very small reason of why so many pheasants die in tough winters. I have never seen a large die off of birds in any one spot.

The overwhelming reason that so many pheasants and other birds die in harsh winters is predation. When we have a winter with high volumes of snow, many of the marginal habitats that pheasants use become completely filled with the drifting white stuff. This leaves no place for the birds to hide. They are forced to congregate in much smaller areas, and it is this concentration that is their demise. When the only available habitat is crowded with birds it is much easier for a fox or other predator to find his prey and eat it. It also allows them to eat a lot of it.

Harsh winters create nature's smorgasbord. Predator success can increase as much as 300 percent in these areas. With lots of snow cover the birds are also required to feed out in the open for longer periods of time to find enough waste grain to fill their crops. A pheasant must fill its crop twice per day in order to consume enough calories to survive. It is these long feeding periods that allow hawks, owls and any other birds of prey to dine at their leisure -- hence even more predation.

Before most of the wetlands were drained in southwest Minnesota, pheasants could survive by living in the middle of those large cattail soughs. This habitat is ideal for pheasant survival in harsh winters. Pheasants rarely starve to death. They have a magical way of being able to walk around in a worked corn field and know where to scratch up the corn that is hidden underneath. They just need a core wintering area that has overhead cover and is large enough to make if difficult for predators. Mild winters like those of the past five years have made southwest Minnesota a pheasant paradise, but a couple of back-to-back bad winters will change all that. We need to continue to work in creating these necessary core wintering areas, and that will be done primarily with tree plantings. Five rows of short shrubs like red Twig Dogwood, Honeysuckle, and Eastern Red cedars make great winter cover. There are many programs available to help you accomplish this important goal if you decide that you want to. Wildlife is very resilient if we just give it a chance.

I am on record as having said that I would not complain about Minnesota winters anymore if they were all like this one. I just don't think that I will have any luck in that department in the years to come. Winter will again come to Nobles County. I just don't know if it will be this year. There is hardly any ice on area lakes, no snow, and hence no need of a snowblower.

This is one winter I will remember for a long time.

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