Causes and Impacts of the Pheasant Population Decline in Iowa

Nick McClimon

Animal Ecology- Wildlife

Iowa State University

 

In Iowa, a major problem is occurring, not that many people have noticed, but for those of us who have the impact is severe. This ongoing and worsening issue has affected numerous Iowans’ financially and has taken the joy out of many peoples’ lives. It has had a negative financial impact on main streets across the state. All of this is linked to one little bird, The Ring Necked Pheasant, whose populations have been severely declining for many years. This decline has been studied, by the DNR, through their August Roadside Surveys. Their decline has been caused by excess predation, abnormal weather patterns, and most importantly declining habitat.

The Chinese Ring-necked Pheasant was introduced to Iowa around 1900 by accident.  Around 2000 birds were accidentally released when a storm knocked over the pens they were in. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources started to stock them in Iowa around 1910.  Pheasants feed on seeds and small insects, and prefer to live in dense, tall, grasses. They have been Iowan’s number one game bird and most sought after game over all in our state ever since. Hundreds of thousand Iowans purchase a 19.00 dollar hunting license and pay the 11.50 dollar habitat fee to peruse these birds. However, this number has been declining almost as rapidly as the birds. Many hunters are putting away their guns and hanging up their blaze orange vests for good. Some are even letting their bird dogs go, dropping them off on gravel roads across the state, because they no longer have use for them and can no longer afford to feed them because there are no birds to hunt.

The decline is also having an effect on youth hunters. Almost every young and upcoming hunter gets their start with their hunting mentor by trying to bag a few ring necks. I myself went on my first hunt when I was ten. I can still remember going out with my dad and dog and walking through Acers and acres of tall thick grass trying to kick up a few birds. When that first rooster kicked up cackling like crazy, I knew I was hooked for life. I have pursued pheasants ever since and even I have noticed that each year there seems to be fewer and fewer pheasants. This is effecting many youth throughout the state who don’t either have the opportunity to go out or do get out hunting but don’t see or bag any pheasants, and they think it is a waste of time and don’t hunt again.

One of the main reasons Pheasant populations are declining is the decline of habitat. Iowa have been losing vast amounts of grasslands and fence-lines which are where pheasants like to reside. Farmers are tearing out fence-lines like they are the plague simply because they are no longer used and the farmer can get an extra few rows in where the fence used to be. Land-owners are also not renewing their CRP, or Conservation Reserve Program, contracts. CRP is crucial to pheasant populations in our state. For instance, “Between 1990 and 2005, Iowa lost almost 2,500 square miles of habitat, which is enough to create an eight mile wide strip of habitat from Omaha to Davenport” (Iowa Department of Natural Resources). Just imagine how many pheasants could live in that piece of habitat. The decline in CRP is happening because the government’s payout for it is less than the going rate for agricultural land rent. Buffer strips along creeks and woodlands are also declining to the drive to increase agricultural production.

In Iowa the predation of pheasants is rising. This is mainly due to the lack of heavy habitat for the birds to hide in, making it easier for predators to find them. Animals such as coyotes, hawks, and foxes will eat the whole bird, whereas animals like the raccoon, skunk, and mink will steal the eggs from the nests. This is very detrimental to the populations and will continue to happen until there are no more pheasants for them to eat. This would result in an eventual decline in the predator population, but by then it may be too late. To combat the rising predator numbers more and more hunters are answering the call to try to hunt and trap them, with the exception of hawks.

When Iowa has one bad winter, it is detrimental to the pheasant population. When we have four winters in a row that have had 20 percent more snowfall than average, it is almost a virtual death sentence. These abnormally high snowfalls aren’t the only weather phenomena that is hurtful to the populations. We have also received high amounts of rain fall during march and april, which are the prime nesting months. This rain is bad during nesting times as it can wash away eggs and also harm their shells, resulting in death of the chicks.

The ongoing declination of this game bird is having a severe impact on Iowa. Fewer and fewer people are spending money in our state to persue this bird. This is wreaking havoc on many small towns across the state. It is also affecting the DNR as they are no longer receiving funds from all of the licenses that could be sold to people in state and from out of state. This is causing cuts across the board for them, thereby reducing their services to outdoorsmen and women. The declination is happening from a loss of habitat, abnormally severe weather, and in turn excess predation. This is a terrible problem and MUST be addressed. 

 

           

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