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September 16, 2008

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Bourjaily: Pheasant Numbers

I saw a ton of pheasants in South Dakota last week, and not just at the lodge where we hunted (on those places, managers are required to stock more birds than their clients shoot). Driving from Seneca back to Aberdeen, we saw lots of wild pheasants on the roadsides and in the fields. What I saw seems to match up with the forecast for almost all of the pheasant belt, which you can read on the Pheasants Forever website.  In a nutshell, Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas and northwest Iowa all have plenty of birds. Most of Iowa, including my part, was under ice and snow all winter and rain all spring. The Iowa DNR’s August roadside survey showed bird numbers to be way down in all but the northwest portion of the state.

The PF forecast goes on to give us the bad news for the future. Increased corn production, in large part for ethanol fuels, means thousands upon thousands of acres are coming out of CRP, which has been responsible for the pheasant populations of the last fifteen or twenty years. Like it or not, pheasants are basically wildlife on welfare. Government spending on CRP created the boom (as the Soil Bank created the previous boom in the 60s) and without fields of grass, we won’t have birds. I can’t bring myself to be completely optimistic about the future possibility of cellulose-based fuels made from native grasses, either. My fear is, they will be harvested every year just in time to leave birds without cover for the fall and winter.

I am glad to have hunted through the Good Old Days, but I worry that they’re over. Am I being too gloomy?


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No, you aren't. When I was growing up back in the '60s in Wisconsin, there were pheasants everywhere. Every farmer could hunt them in his own back yard. But as more modern farming methods moved in, the grassy borders to all the fields and beneath all the fences disappeared, and the birds with them. Yes, Wisconsin still has pheasants, but only in places that have the cover. No cover, no birds, no lie.

Chad Love

If anything Phillip, you're not being gloomy enough.
I fervently hope I'm wrong but I think if present trends continue corn and cellulose ethanol production is going to essentially wipe out upland bird hunting in a huge swatch of land stretching from Texas all the way up through the Dakotas and into Canada, not to mention what it will do to prairie pothole duck reproduction.

I think the next five to 10 years will see fundamental changes to the southern, central and northrn plains landscape. I'm going to try to hunt it as much as I can while it's still here.

But hey, we still have all those big-racked corn feeder-conditioned livestock, I mean whitetails to hunt, so it's all good, right?

Dr. Ralph

Pheasant and quail were abundant in the 1960's but have disappeared from everywhere I used to hunt them. I am glad to have lived through the glory days myself but the wild turkey and whitetail glory days are now! We are living in the best of all possible worlds.

Brian T

So some introduced, feral species are better than others, despite competing for food and cover with native wildlife? All hail the mighty zebra mussel.

Septic Tank

You are being too gloomy. The wind energy boom across the midwest will create immense pockets of cover. Crops will be grown underneath the blades, but not completely. While these pockets of windmills will not allow hunting, they will allow wildlife to thrive in adjacent areas. The will be mini-DMZ's for wildlife, including deer. Support wind energy!

Chad Love

Brian, I'm lamenting upland birds in general, not specifically pheasants. As one goes, they all go...

Ed J

Brian T
Go look in a mirror and see the introduced,feral species.

Canadian lurker

This is why you have to remember to vote on gun ownership right only, as outlined by Petz in his previous post.
Make sure any environmental issues are pushed aside. Who needs flipping pheasants, really?

Just make sure you can shoot your 20-rounds magazine AR15 betweeen two concrete walls in some McMansion exurbian community. This is what is important, really.

Bernie Kuntz

I've been hunting pheasants for 50 years, and I remember when the Soil Bank Program expired in the early 1960s. In North Dakota, where I grew up, pheasant numbers dropped drastically, then plummeted even more during the hard winter of 1966-67.

I'm afraid we've seen the best of it for a while in the Dakotas and northeastern Montana. Many thousands of acres of CRP has been grazed and/or plowed. The first real ass-kicking winter will knock pheasant numbers down by 3/4s or more. I hate to see it happen, but I am sure that is what will occur.


Canadian lurker is right -- you have a lot more to think about at the voting booth than just gun rights.

If gun rights are all that matters to you, by all means vote on them and them alone. But try to understand when others consider their range of concerns and likelihoods -- habitat preservation among them -- and cast their vote accordingly.

SD Bob

I've seen many a CRP take a disc this year but a bad winter will hurt the pheasants way quicker than expiring CRP contracts. The state of South Dakota recognizes the economic importance of ring necks all to well and are trying to partner with the states businesses to generate revenue to be able to fund their own type of CRP program. Live out here and it won't take long to see that most rural Dakotans benefit many ways from the robust populations. My jobs mainstay is visiting hunters and I've watched these guys/gals spend thoudands of dollars so I see increased licenses fees, hotel/motel taxes and maybe even an October through December fuel tax as a way to fund a state sponsored program. I hate high fuel prices as much as the next guy but as a resident of South Dakota I am more than willing to pay an extra hundred dollars per year in fuel if it means the visiting hunters still come. I don't know who said it but the quote of "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few" applies here too. That probably applies to fuel too but my intent is to apply it to bird hunting!


probably not. if and when they actually get this alcohol fuel at every station, and the cars are set up for it (i drive old cars), the amount of corn we are going to need to make fuel will probably take every squre inch of extra soil it can. once that happens, phesants are not going to be the only species that find themselfs hurting. in the future, you will probably have to go to a special habitat ranch to shoot most game, at least that which is displaced for corn production. so if you want to play, you will have to pay, pay, pay! (big suprise, right!?)


Like many others, I feel you're being realistic. The good part is that once these acres go back into CRP lands, the pheasants will rebound.

Here in the Rocky Mountain West, the energy boom, with its tens-of-thousands of wells, mega-monsterous windfarms, etc. are putting the screws to our heards of wildlife and hunting. There will always be some elk, mule deer and pronghorn, but the days when deer and antlope outnumbered humans in Wyoming is coming to an end. I feel that I've lived through the last good years of hunting in my state. My grandchildren will probably not have any sort of hunting opportunity such as I've had. When all this is over after 50 to 75 years, there won't be a hunting heritage left. As you can see, I'm horribly pessimistic, but I see no reason for optimism.

Brian T

I have looked in the mirror. As Pogo said:"We have met the enemy and he is us." Zebra mussels love North America. Perhaps the pheasant might serve as an indicator species, a landscape barometer, if you will. It's a dirty bird that messes in its own nest.

james ti

the anti's like to tell everyone how cruel it is to hunt animals. what they neglect to say or admit is that taking their land away and forcing them into a situation where food and shelter is to kill them in an inhumane way. it is far more cruel than anything we can do to them! let's do what the humane society wants and take away their homes so they can live longer and suffer more. perhaps the humane society and peta could use more of their resources to protect wild lands and habitat instead of taking shots at us hunters.


One thing that has been left out of this discussion of the 'good old days' of pheasant populations is the extensive use of DDT in the farming process in the 50s-60s prior to its being banned. I grew up in good farm country in west/southcentral MN where pheasants were abundant in the late 30s and although declining slowly in the 40s-50s still plentiful. Farming did change, low land was drained for production and more land became cultivated with less and less good cover ground for birds. BUT, not only the pheasants declined. Songbirds populations declined drastically as well. I can remember my father, a 3rd generation farmer on that land lamenting, in his later years, what DDT had done to the bird populations.


Don't worry petzal, there will always be planted birds at the "Lodge" you hunt

Dr. Ralph

Dickgun you nailed this one. I used to find dead pheasant in the fields in Michigan in the 60's and my dad said the same thing as you.

Ted in SD

Cellulose-based fuels made from native grasses should provide a tremendous boost to pheasant numbers because the grasses that make the best nesting cover rarely make the best winter cover.

Most grasses simply stink as pheasant cover when the snow starts to fly. Sloughs, tree plantings, etc... provide much better shelter from the winter cold.

Grasses are most valuable to pheasants during the spring nesting season.

Gene Estensen

I fondly remember walking the fencelines of west-central Minnesota as a youth, hunting with my father and grandfather. Those fencelines not only protected the phesants from the winds in Winter, but provided safe passage between the sloughs and woodlots. Then came the large corporate farms, and the small farms became big farms. Out went the fencelines to make for easier tilling of the fields. What a loss!


CRP being 'put back into production' is just a farm subsidy scam. Much of the land in CRP isn't suited to grow crops efficiently in the first place. It was brken up and planted to qualify for the program. Now it's being broken up to be claimed for poor production and low yields to draw subsidy from the government under the new farm bill.


First of all, I would like to know what "native species" pheasants have driven out. Where there is good habitat for pheasants, other species abound.

It would be easy to blame big corporate farms, but the reality at least here in Michigan is not so simple. Areas with smaller plots and wide fence lines have trees that proved perches for predators. "Back in the good old days", farmers had a couple of cows for "personal consumption" that kept the trees down when they grazed on those fence rows. we have plenty of fence rows, but no real good habitat.

I know it is very fashionable to get real snooty about "lodges" with planted birds, and yes, wild birds would be much better, but around here, it's farm birds or nothing. So get your noses out of the air and thank goodness you live in an area with wild birds if you do.

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