Upland game hunters have a good reason to step out into the fields this weekend across Iowa. Pheasant numbers are up, for the first time in seven years.
Give credit to the mild winter and relatively warm, dry spring for the rebound. Annual roadside counts this past August showed an average of eight birds per 30-mile route. That's up from a record low 6.8 birds last year, breaking a string of declines that stretches back to 2005.
Though modest, the increase does nudge populations in the right direction.
"Our harvest should be slightly better than last year. Hunters should take approximately 125,000-200,000 roosters this fall," forecasts Todd Bogenschutz, DNR upland research biologist. Bogenschutz points to higher counts in Iowa's north central and northwest counties; up 35 percent and 58 percent, respectively. Central Iowa saw a bounce of 12 percent.
Iowa's pheasant season runs from Oct. 27 through Jan.10.
With the fall crop harvest basically complete, hunters may concentrate on remaining cover to find birds; CRP acres, grassy waterways and shelterbelts. That's especially true as more winter-like weather moves in.
"If you can find those areas on private land, they should have birds around them," suggests Bogenschutz. "Public land is important, too. Our wildlife area complexes in north central and northwest Iowa are designed with pretty good winter and nesting cover. That's been the key to where bird numbers have been the last couple years."
Also available this year is 7,000 acres of private land in 41 counties; to be utilized for public hunting through Iowa's Hunting and Access Program.
Still, Bogenschutz acknowledges ringneck numbers remain well below where hunters, and wildlife officials, want to see them. With 1.6 million Conservation Reserve Program acres on the ground, Iowa could support a harvest of 600,000 to 800,000 pheasants, IF good weather continues.
"It took five years for Mother Nature to knock us down. We had one good year. I think we need about two more years; getting more hens through the winter and building on that," advises Bogenschutz.