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OUTDOORS: Wildlife have great survival instincts

WORTHINGTON -- Pheasant hunting has gotten a big slow down after the big blow last weekend. When we get weather events like the one I am referencing, it always makes you wonder just how many pheasants died as a result. I was sure that after the killer winter we had last year, a pheasant would be an endangered species in Nobles County.

In actuality, this did not happen. Pheasant numbers this season were really much better than expected. My 2010 season was on track to exceed the 2009 one. What happens for the balance of this year is yet to be determined. The hunting season ends Jan 2. It officially ends the Sunday following New Year's Day. In some cases that adds five to six days, but this year it adds only one.

Pheasants are in many respects one of the most tenacious birds in North America. They can survive some brutal winter conditions if certain habitat necessities exist. It makes sense that winters with heavy snowfall are more difficult for pheasants. But the reasons why are not what the average pheasant hunter/watcher might think.

Most people think when the snow gets deep pheasants cannot find enough food to eat and starvation results. The fact of the matter is that pheasants rarely ever starve to death. Pheasants have a crop -- a thin membrane-like sack under the skin of their neck.

The crop is bigger than a golf ball and smaller than a tennis ball. A pheasant needs to fill this crop twice every day in order to get enough nutrient energy to survive.

Pheasants generally feed twice daily. This happens once in early morning and again at about 4 o'clock in the afternoon. Pheasants forage on waste grain and other weed seeds. Once their crop is full, they head back to cover to digest the contents of their crop and acquire the energy from its contents.

The birds' crop acts like a grocery sack and allows for the collection of larger amounts of food in a short period to be carried with the bird and processed later.

Their metabolism must be very high because they will completely consume and process their crop contents in as little as four hours. This means that four hours after an evening feed, the bird will need to exist off of the energy received and body reserves if necessary for an additional eight to ten hours before it can or will feed again.

Most people think when they are seeing many birds that this is a good sign. This may or may not be the case. If you see large numbers of pheasants during the normal feeding times of early morning or late afternoon this is normally a good sign. On the other hand, if you are seeing many birds in the middle of the day it is an indication they are having a harder time finding enough to eat.

Deep snow requires a pheasant to feed longer and this can cause problems. The first of which is the additional time the bird is exposed to predators. If a pheasant feeds for 30 minutes in the morning and afternoon, then it can be spotted by a hawk or other avian predator for around an hour. If feeding takes many hours, then it results in more birds lost to predation.

The same thing happens when areas of marginal cover are lost due to deep snow. This concentrates higher bird numbers into fewer spots and makes the picking by foxes and the like much easier. The short answer is that deep snow increases overall predation and bird numbers suffer. Starvation has a low impact on bird numbers.

Other than the large increase in predation, the other factor that affects pheasants is death due to exposure. A bird all nestled up in good cover needs far less energy usage to maintain body temperature and survive. It is when cover is marginal or when birds are exposed for long periods for feeding that death by exposure becomes more common.

Core wintering areas are one of the most lacking aspects of pheasant habitat in southwest Minnesota. Cattail sloughs and multi-row (6-10 rows) tree groves provide this critical element required for pheasant winter survival. If you have looked around much, you will not see many of these areas available in the vast majority of the surrounding counties.

There is one other thing you can do to help pheasant populations in your area. Shooting and harvesting a large percentage of the rooster population actually helps pheasants survive. How is that? It takes about one rooster for every 15 hens to propagate the species. Roosters are very aggressive in winter and if times get tough they will actually chase hens away from available food sources. This will result in well-fed roosters and hens that will suffer as a result. If the hen actually survives the winter she will enter the nesting season in poorer condition and that can result in smaller clutches.

I read somewhere that the rooster to hen ratio after the close of the Minnesota season is still around one rooster for every four hens. This is more roosters than necessary to bring off a hatch next spring, so harvesting roosters has very little affect on overall population levels. This was a concern when the season was extended a few years back by about 10 additional days and the limit raised to three birds per day after Dec. 1. I think both of these have had no noticeable effect on Minnesota pheasant populations.

I am going to enjoy the balance of this hunting season, but with all the snow the birds are much harder to get close to. All the tromping around in the snow sends out the alert signal loud and clear and most birds will exit the area before you can get in gun range no matter how hard you try to be quiet.

Harvesting one bird in December is harder than harvesting three in October. Spend your time in cattails the last 30 minutes of shooting time for the best results.

There is one benefit to deep snow and that is it keeps all but the hardiest hunters indoors. In my last few outings I have not seen even one other hunter in the field. Having good spots all to yourself is kind of nice.

Pheasants can survive if they have the necessary food and cover. If you really want to help pheasants and other wildlife, consider planting a bunch of trees grouped tight. This will keep the snow from blowing straight through and making the cover worthless. Finish with a food source close and you will have everything a pheasant needs in winter. It is amazing what pheasants can do with just a little help.