Pheasant Numbers Looking Up

February 18, 2009 by  

By Doug Leier

For the most part the pheasants made it through another easy winter

For the most part the pheasants made it through another easy winter

August brings with it an array of predictions and prognostications for the upcoming hunting seasons. It’s not much different than gauging the outlook for your local high school or college football team, or trying to guess how well the Vikings will play.

It’s a process of reviewing last year’s results, mixing in changes over the off-season, and coming up with an informed and educated guess.

Hunting is a little bit different in that a surprise upset may be nothing more than a field that produced a few limits last fall may not produce this fall. Perhaps some localized weather event or a change in land use contributed to those poor results, while not far away everything is the same or even better.

Regardless of how your 2006 fall hunts play out, August is a good time to learn a bit more on how these predictions are put together in a biological sense.

Pheasants, one of the more popular hunting quarries, are a good example. The first step is to review statistics from 2005. Game and Fish data indicate the total harvest was 809,775. Understand that biologists don’t track each and every pheasant taken, but statistically reliable numbers are derived from a sample of last fall’s pheasant hunters.

Compare that number to the 2004 harvest of 587,500, and we can generally assume the pheasant population grew in 2005, based on the rationale that more pheasants taken would indicate a higher population of birds.

That assumption works if the number of hunters each year was roughly the same. But if the number of hunters increased significantly, one could also suggest that the higher harvest in 2005 was due to more hunters in the field and not necessarily a higher pheasant population.

That’s why the small game survey conducted at the end of each hunting season collects information on the number of birds bagged by hunters.
In 2005 the number of hunters did indeed increase by about 9 percent, to 92,801. In addition to that, the number of roosters bagged per hunter increased from 6.8 in 2004 to 8.7 in 2005. More hunters taking more birds apiece is a good indicator that last year’s fall pheasant population was higher than the year before.

As we went through the 2005-06 winter, except for an early ice storm in extreme southeastern North Dakota, biologists figured the pheasants probably made it through in pretty good shape. This assessment was based on weather comparisons to past years and anecdotal information from landowners, public input at advisory board meetings, and field observations.

Each spring, Game and Fish Department biologists take a more calculated look at spring pheasant numbers, conducting crowing counts throughout North Dakota. During this survey, biologists travel defined 20-mile routes at sunrise, stopping and listening for crowing rooster pheasants.

One year’s data doesn’t mean much alone, but when the number of crows per stop is compared over time, biologists have a reliable indication whether the spring population is up or down from previous years. In 2006, North Dakota’s crowing counts were up 39 percent statewide, certainly a promising number considering that last year produced the highest pheasant harvest in 60 years.

But increased spring numbers don’t always correspond to increased fall populations. Annual reproduction produces the bulk of the pheasants taken each hunting season. In the past, cold, wet weather during June and early July has reduced fall populations to levels lower than what spring numbers might have suggested.

This year, extreme heat and little precipitation are creating some concerns related to chick survival. For pheasants, too hot and dry is generally better than too cold and wet. August production surveys will provide a better gauge to the fall pheasant population.

Certainly, North Dakota’s pheasant population is riding a high. It’s a similar story in surrounding states because of the continuing presence of Conservation Reserve Program grasslands and several mild winters that have allowed pheasant populations to increase.

Like a high school football team with a lot of returning letterwinners, it’s not stepping out on a limb to suggest we’ll have another good pheasant hunting season this fall. We’ll just have to wait until later in the fall to find out how it compares to last year.


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