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Pheasants are just plain tough

By Brian Hansel

The amorous embrace of winter this year in Minnesota has only served to remind me of what an amazing bird the Chinese ringneck pheasant truly is.

Monday’s blizzard conditions and the gentle zero temperature reading I saw on the first day of spring only confirmed that this transplant to Minnesota is one tough cookie.

On my daily commute to work, I have routinely spotted a half dozen of these birds scrambling for whatever the roadsides have to offer. It has been quite a surprise to see how many pheasants there are in the Wadena area. A feeding station I set up a couple of weeks ago near Deer Creek attracted a dozen birds to it one morning.

Otter Tail County and Wadena County are on the north edge of what is considered Minnesota’s pheasant range. Driving north from Wadena, you head into the domain of the ruffed grouse, another hardy upland bird that happens to be perfectly adapted to the poplar and conifer forests that reach to the Canadian border and beyond. The ruffed grouse is a Minnesota native all the way. They are built to take it.

My wife and I took a short trip last weekend to visit some relatives living south of Barrett. That heavily-farmed country does not offer much in the way of cover during the winter months. If it were not for shelterbelts around farmsteads, it would be about as interesting as a concrete wall. Yet even in that white and forbidding country the pheasant survives. We ran into a dozen pheasants on the way, most of them hustling around looking for food on the shoulders of the ice-covered highways we traveled.

The same day we made that trip, I received an e-mail from Rachelle Klemme, a former PJ reporter now working for a newspaper in Watertown, S.D. She remarked in her e-mail she was seeing a lot of pheasants in northeastern South Dakota and western Minnesota.

How much help does wildlife need in times like these? Several weeks ago, the sportsman’s club in my hometown bought a gravity box full of shell corn and posted it behind a local business place for people feeding wildlife. I thought it was a little late in the winter to be so generous. Now I am grateful.  

I like to be careful about where I put corn when I am feeding pheasants during winter’s worst stretches. To toss it out on the side of paved highway is asking for trouble. If a roadside is the only option, I like to pick a lightly-traveled gravel road and then spread it right on the edge. The best locations for feeders are near shelterbelts or large areas of habitat – well off the road. Spreading corn on windswept knolls also works well.

In talking with DNR people over the years, I have learned about the tremendous resiliency of pheasants. Their numbers can be knocked back by rough weather, and yet, like a good boxer that has been sent to the canvas, they will come back swinging.

A pheasant can take the cold of a Minnesota winter as long as they can find food. The most dangerous time for these game birds is now, when a lot of their cover is gone and we are on the cusp of spring, when a freezing rain can suffocate these birds.

It looks like the loss of all those CRP acres that have aided wildlife habitat is going to bring on a new Dark Age for pheasants. Despite this rather gloomy future, a good guess is that pheasants will find a way to survive.