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Scott Rall: Some pheasants do double duty

BY SCOTT RALL The Globe outdoors columnist One of the very first columns I wrote back in 2003 was about pheasants and their biology related to reproduction. I wrote about how I believed that some hens had pulled off a second hatch because there w...

BY SCOTT RALL

The Globe outdoors columnist

One of the very first columns I wrote back in 2003 was about pheasants and their biology related to reproduction.  

I wrote about how I believed that some hens had pulled off a second hatch because there were lots of reports of small chicks in late August.  This is about 90 days past the normal hatch dates.

I had a reader write a letter to the editor calling me out as being the least knowledgeable outdoor writer he had ever read because pheasant hens don't pull double duty in the same season -- double duty meaning hatching  two clutches of chicks in one season.

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It was proven many years ago that hens will try nesting over and over, up to 3-5 times in a season if their eggs are destroyed. It was pretty well accepted that if the eggs hatched and the chicks were then killed by predation that she was done for the year.

I didn't buy it. This guy was so sure that I was wrong and he was totally right. He made a pretty big deal of straightening me out.

The certainty of his facts are no longer solid. I will share what I have learned recently. I have had many discussions this year with many wildlife professionals about the number of pheasants people are seeing.

I recently finished the three routes the DNR uses to make up its August roadside count data.  These are three 25-mile long routes in each county in the pheasant range.  They drive the same routes every year in the same week. They publish this information and print a map of pheasant densities so hunters will have a good idea as to where the highest pheasant populations in the state exist so they can plan their fall hunting trips accordingly.

I saw few pheasants in Nobles County on these routes; very few in fact.  The discussions I have had centered around how this could be.  

The winter was mild, which allows the hens to enter the nesting season in the very best possible condition.  The spring was good due to the fact that we did not have any torrential rains the first week of June, which is considered the peak of the hatch in southwest Minnesota.

People are seeing some birds but in smaller isolated areas. So why so few pheasants? Each person has entered their ideas.

My idea was that the six-inch snow we had the first week of May was the culprit. Normally a pheasant makes a nest and then lays one egg and leaves the nest.  The next day she will lay another, and so on, till there are 8-12 eggs.  

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Only after the entire clutch of eggs is laid will she start sitting and incubating the eggs.  This way all of the eggs will hatch within 24 hours of each other.  If an egg does not hatch within this window she will take the chicks she has and leave the unhatched eggs behind.

During this period the temperatures need to stay over 40 degrees at night or the embryos inside can die. I think that many hens got their nests snowed on and the eggs became unviable. The hens had no way to know this and as a result they sat and sat for many weeks and nothing hatched, and because the eggs were not destroyed they were very reluctant to try again.

This means no first hatch and little to no second or third attempts because of the extended energies expended to incubate the first attempt.  It was now too late in the season to give it another go.

A friend of mine contacted the DNR pheasant researchers in Minnesota and was told that their radio tracking of hens did show that hens would sit for many extra weeks beyond the normal incubation period trying to hatch a clutch. This makes my hypothesis seem probable.

On a side note, their research also showed that some hens who hatched chicks do indeed lay and hatch a second time in the same season if conditions are right. How many or what percentage is not known, but it was proven that it does happen.

So the guy from so many years ago can now eat the crow I am serving him. Second hatches indeed happen occasionally.

How this pheasant season shakes out is yet to be determined. I have seen some birds.  My outpost property was completely hailed out and the grasses that were four feet tall are now 18 inches tall.  

Whether these grasses can recover in the next eight weeks is yet to be seen. Did every small chick get smashed by hail greater than the size of a golf ball?  I have no way to know. At least the path of the hail was narrow and did not cover much of the entire county.

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Pheasant hunters may or may not buy a license if pheasant numbers are lower than expected or desired. This is a mistake.  Pheasant hunting is way more than just how many birds did you kill.  

The days afield with dogs and friends in tow is what a quality outing is all about.  If they do choose to sit this season out it, will just mean less competition for those of us who choose to enjoy their outdoor passions even if their game bags are a little lighter.

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