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Pheasants, ruffy numbers could be OK

Photo by Brian Hansel Two hen pheasants and one rooster dig in the snow for corn on a sunny January afternoon. Upland birds like pheasants and grouse have had to endure a tough winter and a cool spring in west-central Minnesota.

Minnesota's cool spring may not be the problem for upland birds that many state sportsmen have feared.

A lack of rainfall during the cool spell may have lessened the danger to upland birds like pheasants and grouse.

Minnesota pheasant hunters saw their opportunities in many parts of the state limited last fall by wet weather and standing corn. August roadside counts last year placed pheasant numbers in eastern Otter Tail, Todd and a silver of southwestern Wadena County at 49 per square mile.

Despite a winter of heavy snow, pheasant numbers did not dip appreciably in west-central Minnesota.

While upland birds must find a way to survive mid-winter blizzards, they must also run the gauntlet spring ice storms and cold spring rains. Pheasant chicks typically hatch out in early to mid-June and cool, wet weather plays havoc with them.

The last four years have been good ones for Minnesota pheasant hunters. State officials have estimated the 2008 harvest at 500,000 birds -- the fourth straight year the harvest has been at least a half million birds. While this number is still considered good for Minnesota, it is down from a 2007 harvest of 655,000 roosters.

Over-winter survival and hen density are two crucial pieces of a recovery effort.

"That represents half of the ingredients for making a high fall population," said Kurt Haroldson, Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist. "The other important ingredient is good reproductive success, which is influenced by availability of grassland habitat and weather."

Glenwood wildlife manager Kevin Kotts is guardedly optimistic about pheasant numbers this fall. His area had good pheasant numbers last fall but success was limited by weather and crop conditions.

"In my work area, we have been seeing pretty good pheasant numbers since the end of winter. Warm, dry weather would be good right now," Kotts said.

Fergus Falls DNR wildlife manger Don Schultz believes cool weather this spring may have delayed the peak period of the pheasant hatch and a lack of rainfall could help those chicks that are hatching out.

"We have good numbers of birds coming back," Don Schultz. "The stage is set for good reproduction."

The state's official pheasant count will not be done until August. The state has set the pheasant hunting season at 85 days, beginning Oct. 10.

Where pheasant country begins to end in Minnesota, ruffed grouse country begins. The state's No. 1 gamebird, which calls the country around and north of Wadena home, heads into 2009 moving up back up in its long "boom and bust cycle."

Park Rapids DNR wildlife manager Rob Naplin has been hearing good reports on ruffed grouse drumming counts.

"Half our routes were up slightly and a couple of them were similar to last year," Naplin said. "The anecdotal information that we have heard is that people were hearing more drumming activity this spring than last spring and we've been seeing newly hatched broods."

While ruffed grouse is a bird that does well in the northern Minnesota forests, grouse chicks are just as susceptible as pheasants to cold, wet weather for an extended period.

"We had a little more snow than the Wadena area. Even in the Wadena County area we had pretty good conditions for snow roosting," Naplin said. "For most of the winter the snow was fairly soft. We had excellent over-winter conditions for our grouse."

Naplin believes that if the weather continues to warm up in June grouse numbers should be good this fall.

"Last fall our hunters experienced kind of spotty conditions," he said. Some hunters would go out and have tremendous success and others would go out and see very few. Numbers are still down so we expect that."

The 106-day grouse season is slated to start Sept. 19 in Minnesota.