Naturally Speaking Duck and Pheasant Populations Look Good

Steve Lekwa

The most recent issue of Pheasants Forever’s magazine shared fall pheasant population forecasts for states across the “king of game bird’s” range. The reports are cautiously optimistic in spite of huge losses of CRP grasslands in recent years. Last winter wasn’t as severe as some of those in our recent past, allowing better survival of pheasants where habitat conditions still support them. This summer’s heavy rains came late enough that some of last year’s surviving pheasants were able to hatch large early broods. Those chicks had enough time to grow that they were able to survive the periods of wet summer weather better than they would have been able to if the rains had come even a week or two earlier. Young chicks aren’t able to regulate body temperatures well. Hens try to protect them under their sheltering wings and body during storms, but prolonged or heavy rains still get them wet. They chill and die if they stay wet too long, even if temperatures are fairly warm. Summer rains may have hurt survival of later hatching broods, but Iowa has finally seen a moderate increase in its fall pheasant population after years of declines that led to the lowest population figures since records were kept.

The increase in pheasant numbers is encouraging, but older hunters will remember times not so long ago when Iowa led the nation in pheasant production. This year’s increases still leave the state’s pheasant population at only a fraction of what it once was. Weather has always been a factor in reproductive success and survival for all wildlife, but habitat condition is still the most important factor. Major areas of the state have little or no habitat left to support pheasants or other wildlife, but pheasant hunters who have access to quality habitat may find hunting reminiscent of those glory days of yore. Many of those higher population pockets will be on public land, but there are still private landowners who do fantastic habitat work on their property. If you’re lucky enough to hunt on some of that land, make sure you let the landowner know how much you appreciate their good work. Offer to share some of the bounty with them, or better yet, offer to help them maintain or improve their habitat in some way.

The drier winter left some of the southern portions of North America’s waterfowl breeding areas with less wetland available for early nesting ducks and geese, according to Ducks Unlimited. Biologists perform spring “pond counts” to get a better estimate of potential breeding sites for waterfowl across the U.S. and Canada, and they were down 12 percent from 2014. Early summer rains refilled many of the dry wetland basins and left good habitat conditions for later nesting attempts. Some earlier nesting species continued migrating farther north and found conditions more to their liking before stopping to nest. Last year’s fall flight was the largest since records began in the 1950s after several years of wet conditions across much of North America’s prairie pothole region, the continent’s “duck factory.” Good numbers of ducks and geese survived the winter to fly north last spring. They have apparently made the best of the habitat they found because this fall’s flight is predicted to be 1 percent larger than last year’s record and is 43 percent above the 50-year average. Several species are at or near record high population levels. Mallards, the continent’s most numerous duck, are 53 percent above their 50 year average. Green-winged teal increased 19 perent above last year’s high to a level of 98 percent above their 50 year average. Gadwalls are at 100 percent above their average! Only northern pintails and scaup showed declines since last year.

The glowing fall flight forecast does not insure good duck hunting here in central Iowa, though. Prolonged warm weather could leave many ducks and geese north of us even into December when seasons close. Recent flooding likely did major damage to larger waterfowl holding areas, like the wetlands at the upper end of Red Rock Reservoir. Waterfowl that arrived in the area last fall didn’t stay long when they discovered that flooding had completely destroyed vegetation and food supplies. Much of last year’s record fall flight flew west of us, entirely bypassing much of Iowa. There’s no way of knowing what the birds will do as fall unfolds, but this much can be said for sure: as of this writing, thousands of blue-winged teal, wood ducks and other early migrating species are enjoying the shallower ponds and wetlands in our area that have filled with the summer’s heavy rain. Duck hunters should brush up on the waterfowl identification, though. Only teal can be taken in the early duck season that begins Sept. 5.

Steve Lekwa is retired director of Story County Conservation. He lives in Nevada.