Ringnecks Rise from the Ashes

By Troy Hoepker

I can still see that bird spinning straight upward into the blue sky like it was yesterday. I thought it might never come down! It was hit and sent into a spin yet it continued to gain elevation. If it hadn’t been for my good buddy and hunting partner Chad Green finally delivering a solid hit with the last shell that either of us had in our guns, he might still be headed towards the clouds. We had followed a spring fed ditch for a half mile on the farm that I grew up on and in typical pheasant fashion, three roosters hanging onto the last bits of cover sprung from the foxtail and tall, dried ragweed stems left leafless from one too many hard frosts in front of us at the end of the draw.

Chad and I fired almost simultaneously on the first volley and a bird folded up. I still remember cycling the bolt on my Dad’s old New Haven Mossberg bolt action 12 gauge as I turned and took aim on a second bird headed off another direction. Wow, was that shotgun awful for bird hunting but it was all I had and it had to do in those days. Chad carried his Dad’s Remington 1100 in his hands and he knew how to use it well. Cycling that bolt to keep up with him and that autoloader was a challenge. We each fired again likely choosing targets in the same succession. Another bird dropped. Again we each fired after turning our attention to the bird rising almost straight up in front of us. I was out of shells, the bird was hit and I helplessly watched it thinking it was going to escape as just then came the last ”BOOM” from the 1100 dropping the final rooster for good before it was too late!

That was over twenty years ago, still in Iowa’s pheasant heyday, and although I’m not sure whose shots truly hit home on all three of those birds, I am sure we probably each tried to take credit to as many as we could. We didn’t have a dog to hunt behind, but that didn’t deter Chad and I from hunting the farms we grew up on just down the road from one another every fall. We didn’t need a dog in those days to see plenty of pheasants, just our Dad’s shotguns and some legwork. I took it for granted then when pheasants were everywhere. Heck, I could literally walk out of the back door of the farmhouse 100 yards to the haybale patch that was surrounded by horseweeds and kick up anywhere from 15 to 50 pheasants on any given day. Rarely did I do it however even though I could have had my limit in ten minutes time with decent shooting. It just wasn’t a challenge or that sporting for that matter. Instead we’d walk the waterways, CRP and fencerows that were so productive for birds that would surprise you. Aw, the glory days!

There’s sure been a lot of change since then. Nowadays, I have a dog to hunt behind, and I have clearly made a drastic improvement in shotguns, but flurries of pheasant hunting action like the one Chad and I had that day have been much less frequent than they used to be. But that all might be about to change once again and this time for the better! There’s real reason to be excited again about pheasant numbers in Iowa!

Milder winters combined with better springs have allowed the pheasants to survive and have more successful hatch rates the last couple of years and with just a simple drive down the road you can actually notice a real difference. Evidently, so did those 215 individuals who drove the thirty-mile routes across the state each day to record numbers for the annual 2015 Iowa August roadside count for the Iowa DNR. This year’s roadside count numbers are up again for the second straight year. The statewide index for this year’s survey was 24.0 birds per route, a 37% increase from 2014’s index of 17.4. That’s the highest seen in over eight years since 2007. This year the index is 52% above the ten-year average but still 40% below the long term average. Hen counts were 37% higher and rooster counts 49% higher than last year showing good indications that over the winter survival was good. Statewide, the measure of nest success and counts of chicks per adult hen was similar to last year. For that we have the resilient hens to thank for raising chicks in a summer that was less than ideal for survival. Unless you’ve been under an extremely large canopy, you know that we’ve seen an extreme amount of rainfall in Iowa this summer.

There was likely a valiant effort put forth to renest by many hens. Todd Bogenschutz upland wildlife research biologist for the Iowa DNR shared some insight on hen pheasant nesting behavior. “If a hen loses its nest before hatch they are real good about a second attempt fairly quickly and will sometimes attempt a third try. Peak hatch time is generally around June 10th for a first hatch. Then we see a spike around June 24th which is likely renesters and then the last spike is usually around July 10th for those hens that may attempt to renest again. If a hen has a hatch that lives a day or so and loses it, they likely won’t attempt nesting again.” said Bogenschutz.

Conditions for this year’s survey were almost ideal and Bogenschutz referred to them as “Outstanding.” The abundant rainfall during July and August led to mornings with heavy dew, which is essential for getting birds to the roads. So counters should have had an honest look at numbers and considering last year’s weather conditions during the count were also favorable, the DNR should have a more accurate picture of true bird numbers since drought conditions plagued Iowa during August of 2013.

I asked Bogenschutz if it would be safe to say that our pheasant numbers have finally recovered from those five consecutive years of 30-plus inches of snowfall per winter from 2007 to 2011 to the same level where they were prior to that? “If you go back to 2007 we were at 25 to 26 birds per route. So from a statewide perspective we are about back to where we were. All of the regions are at or above the ten year average. A lot of regions are going to have good bird numbers. Generally everybody should see more birds than last year.” Bogenschutz stated.

Northwest Iowa will once again boast the best pheasant population in the state and showed a count of almost 44 birds per route up from last year’s 29.8. North-Central Iowa also saw a rise in numbers from the count going from 17.5 in 2014 to 23.9 birds per route this year. Parts of NW and NC Iowa should offer excellent pheasant hunting especially in areas with good habitat. Northeastern Iowa once again remained the lowest portion of the state for pheasant population at 7.5 birds per route but that index is the highest the region has seen since 2008.

For those of you in the central part of the state, you may see some of the best pheasant hunting you’ve had since 2005, the last time the index was this high. 38.1 birds per route were counted this year up from 22.5 last year. West Central Iowa showed 24.5 birds per route, only a slight gain from last year and the eastern central part of the state also showed a similar small gain from last year’s numbers at 16.7 this year.

Along the southern part of the state, southeastern Iowa shows the most promise for finding pheasants by far with an index of 26.5 birds per route. That’s the highest index the region has seen in 12 years! South Central and Southwest Iowa regions did not show as dramatic of an increase but are near eight year highs.

For those in the southern counties of the state however, pheasants aren’t the only game in town. Quail numbers have drastically improved! The last time the statewide bobwhite quail index was above this year’s value of 1.41 birds per route was 21 years ago in 1994. Bogenschutz explained why the large increase in quail this year, “Their ability to increase is phenomenal. They are a native bird and their ability to tolerate a wetter nesting period is better. A hen can potentially turn out 3 nests a year and they are good renesters just like pheasants. Their reproduction rate is higher and 20 to 25% of males will actually incubate a brood while a female seeks out a new nest for another brood. They have the ability to double their numbers in a year.”

Speaking as someone who lives in Southern Iowa and who gets around outdoors quite regularly, I can verify the noticeable increase in quail numbers this year. It’s great to see them make such a rebound and it’s much more common now to see them or hear their distinctive “BOB WHITE” whistle. It reminds me of the way it was twenty years ago. Personally I can’t wait to take to the field this fall on my family’s Southern Iowa farm in hopes of a covey rise before me.

The weather this year has brought about a few changes in habitat that many hunters may not have considered yet this year. Persistent precipitation made it very challenging for some farmers to get a crop planted this spring in many areas of the state. Some farmers were forced to abandon planting corn or soybeans all together, instead planting a cover crop across the fields. These weedy crops will provide cover and seeds for birds much in the same way CRP habitat does. Thousands and thousands of acres in Iowa may be planted to cover crops this year or not planted with anything at all, but unlike CRP, the fields will only hold this habitat till fall or early spring next year when farmers will clear the fields. So there will likely be an increased number of habitat acres this year for hunters to explore. Bogenschutz said, “I see the big benefit of it being brood cover helping brood survival. It certainly may be attractive to them for cover and seeds.”

The 2015 gray partridge index in the Northern parts of the state was also up at 3.3 birds per 30-mile route. This is the highest count since 1998 and a 43% increase over last year. Cottontail rabbits are doing well in Iowa showing similar results to last year at 7.1 rabbits per route. You can find the 2015 Iowa August Roadside Survey at the Iowa DNR’s website if you’d like to read it in its entirety. Iowa’s pheasant season opens October 31, 2015 and closes January 10, 2016 with youth season opening October 24th and 25th.

Pheasants in Iowa still may not be back to where they once were during the eighties and nineties but it is encouraging to see them on the rise once again. I look forward to the first cool morning this fall when I can put my dog’s nose into the wind and bring my shotgun to my eye in aim of taking the first ringneck of the year. Who knows, I may just have to call Chad and see if he will join me in search of more rooster made memories of days past once again.