Birds like the pheasant that have such a short lifespan to begin with are so dependent on annual hatches to produce big numbers each fall.

Marginal or poor habitat and wet springs can lead to tough seasons chasing roosters. Quality habitat can help sustain numbers every year, and a dry spring during the June nesting season can help populations jump considerably in one year. That seems to be what pheasants got across much of their range in Minnesota in 2020.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources on Sept. 8 released the results of its annual roadside survey that showed the number of pheasants counted up 42% over 2019 and 37% above the 10-year average. The pheasant increase hit an astounding 146% over 2019 in the state’s prime pheasant habitat in southwestern Minnesota.

“It really comes as no surprise to me given the weather that we had this spring,” Douglas County Pheasants Forever chapter president Dean Krebs of Alexandria said. “When we get good weather in June, the pheasants are designed to really increase or explode their population when they have favorable nesting conditions. We had really favorable nesting conditions this year, and this is the result of that.”

This year’s statewide pheasant index was 53.5 birds per 100 miles of roads driven. All regions of the pheasant range reported an increase in pheasant counts, with the southwest reporting the greatest increase. There, observers counted 90.5 birds per 100 miles.

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The 2020 pheasant prospects map is based on the annual DNR August roadside count and is intended as an indicator of relative density. There may be sites with good pheasant habitat and numbers within overall areas considered to have poor hunting prospects, and vice versa. (Map from the Minnesota DNR)
The 2020 pheasant prospects map is based on the annual DNR August roadside count and is intended as an indicator of relative density. There may be sites with good pheasant habitat and numbers within overall areas considered to have poor hunting prospects, and vice versa. (Map from the Minnesota DNR)

The areas of Douglas, Pope, Todd and Stearns Counties run the gamut on the 2020 pheasant hunting prospects map from poor (10-24 birds/square mile) to good (greater than 49 birds/square mile). That prospects map is intended to be a general indicator of the upcoming fall hunting season based on count numbers. But areas considered poor overall can have areas of great habitat within them that will carry plenty of birds, and vice versa.

“There’s places where we were jumping 20, 30, 40 birds in down years,” Krebs said. “If you have good habitat, you’re going to see that. It’s that marginal habitat where you really get that hit in down years.”

To put this year’s count into an historical perspective, the 53 birds per 100 miles counted is still just a fraction of the more than 300 birds per 100 miles counted in the 1950s and well below recent highs of over 100 birds per 100 miles in the early 2000s.

Still, it’s good news for pheasant hunters in the state after the bird’s numbers dropped over the past decade due to the loss of grassland habitat taken out of the federal Conservation Reserve Program on private lands.

“It was nice to see. It’s a prediction based on roadside counts, but it’s crazy how accurate they are a lot of times,” Krebs said. “When you have good news like this, that’s also represented in the license sales. We’re going to see an uptick in pheasant hunters by quite a bit I would guess this year because people are going to see this, and they’re going to go out. In one way, it’s almost too bad because we still had good hunting even in down years. You may have had to work a little harder, but this good news is going to bring out the hunters, which I love to see.”

Minnesota’s pheasant season begins Oct. 10 and runs to Jan. 3, 2021.

Ideal weather conditions with a dry June not only lead to early and successful hatches, but it helps the chicks head into the fall and winter season in better shape. The peak pheasant hatch was approximately four days earlier than average this year.

Hunters can expect great opportunities to see birds in the southwest and very good hunting prospects in the west-central, central and south-central regions, which all reported more than 50 birds per 100 miles.

DNR officials said there is better news on the habitat front with a net gain of 10,000 acres of former cropland going back into the Conservation Reserve Program since 2019, a small total but in the right direction.

Monitoring pheasant population trends is part of the DNR’s annual August roadside wildlife survey, which began in 1955. Wildlife managers and conservation officers in the farmland regions conduct the survey during the first half of August. This year’s survey consisted of 169 25-mile-long routes, with 153 routes located in the pheasant range.

Observers drive each route in the early morning and record the number of wildlife game species they see. The data provide an index of species abundance and are used to monitor annual fluctuations and long-term population trends of pheasants, Hungarian partridge, eastern cottontail rabbits, white-tailed jackrabbits, mourning doves, sandhill cranes and white-tailed deer. Full information on this year’s roadside count can be seen on the DNR website.

A combination of plenty of birds surviving the winter and a good spring sets up Minnesota pheasant hunters for a promising 2020 season.

“We saw and heard a lot of birds this year while turkey hunting,” Krebs said of the habitat he hunts around the Alexandria area. “That’s a little bit anecdotal because it’s just one spot, but even driving to and from in the areas where we go, we saw a lot more pheasants in the spring than we had in many years. We kept saying, ‘If we get a good hatch, this is going to be a good year.’ I think we pulled off a phenomenal hatch.”

(John Myers of the Forum News Service contributed to this story)