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The Ring-Necked Pheasant

in North Dakota

Fall: The Hunting Season

gif -- Fall Logo Fall brings the hunting season, and the wary ringneck becomes the quarry of a an average 41,000 hunters each year. In the last decade, the bag has averaged 130,000 birds per year; improved habitat could increase numbers.

August and its hints of fall - ripening grain, and a change in the plumage of young roosters means the pheasant season is approaching. In mid-July, biologists' recommendations for season regulations, based on summer brood surveys and field observations, go to the Game and Fish Director, and many eyes and ears await the of ficial announcement of the North Dakota pheasant season dates and limits.

Season setting, however, is no simple matter. Many weeks-of data gathering precede the final tabulation of data, and season recommendations are formulated to permit the hunting of surplus birds, and also to ensure a sustained resource for future years. In nearly 60 years of season-setting, however, one premise has been affirmed time and again: It is virtually impossible to overharvest rooster pheasants.

Experience in North Dakota and elsewhere demonstrates beyond argument that when pheasant numbers are reduced below a certain level, hunters will no longer pursue them. After a certain minimum density has been reached, their scarcity combined with the birds' wiliness make it almost impossible for hunters to shoot enough of them to adversely affect the population. Even at these low numbers, rooster populations remain high enough to breed with all available hens, and recovery of the population depends primarily on habitat availability, not on the number of roosters.

But biological management is only one aspect of pheasant management. The sociological aspects of pheasant hunting also require consideration. From a biological point of view, the pheasant season could run from October through March if only roosters were legal. While this may be true, public tolerance of such a season length would be limited. In setting the season, consideration of all interests is important, to ensure that a portion of the surplus roosters can be hunted, that recreational benefits can be enjoyed, and that private and public lands will not be subjected to undue pressure.

During all this decision-making, young pheasants have been maturing. By hunting season in mid-October, all but a few late-hatched roosters will have acquired their colorful, adult plumage and have learned the survival strategies which make them such a respected game bird. An understanding of some of these capabilities can assist any would-be pheasant hunter to be more successful and to gain a greater appreciation for his quarry.

jpg -- A hunter's catch
The ring-necked pheasant is arguably the favorite game bird of North Dakota hunters.

Often overlooked is the ringneck's acute hearing. The slam of a car door or even the metallic click of a closing shotgun chamber may be enough to send most pheasants scurrying for cover. Pheasants are reported to have responded to cannon fire some 320 miles away during World War I - explosions inaudible to the human ear. Human voices also will alert birds, particularly on dry, calm days. The first maxim of successful pheasant hunting could well be "make no more noise than necessary."

The ringneck also has extremely good eyesight, and the appearance of unfamiliar objects in his accustomed territory may well make him flee. Pheasants are wary, and take to wing or legs at any intrusion, so any use the hunter can make of natural cover is an asset to successful pheasant hunting.

For a bird with a small wing area relative to body size, pheasants fly well, and make up with rapid wing beats what they lack in wing area. In full flight a pheasant may reach 35 to 45 miles per hour. They are not long distance flyers, several hundred yards is about average. The pheasant's leg muscles are well adapted for running, and this is the bird's primary method for evading danger.

Ringnecks are hardy, and each year many instances of healed legs and wings come to biologists' attention. In addition to their tremendous capacity to heal breaks and wounds, pheasants can often survive after losing feet, toes, or an eye. One study on the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge in Nebraska found three percent of the roosters with complete or partial loss of toes on both feet. Five roosters were blind in one eye, probably from fighting. Nevertheless, all were within normal weight ranges. In agricultural areas the rate of injury is undoubtedly higher. Thus, hunters who risk long shots which only put a pellet or two into these robust birds are unlikely to take many home.

Because the pheasant's primary defenses are hiding and running, hunters profit from working cover slowly and methodically. A zig-zag style of hunting is not only effective on birds hiding in heavy cover, but helps to interrupt the run-ahead, circle, and run-back tactics used by other pheasants.

Quick, accurate marking of downed game also helps hunters find birds. Hunting partners who assume responsibility for marking each other's downed birds increase their chances of finding them by "homing in" along two lines of sight. Solo hunters can mark the spot where a bird drops, then work around it in ever-increasing circles, pausing frequently; often a brief pause is enough to make a wounded bird break cover.

In row crops, a wounded pheasant may run straight down a row without the usual zig-zagging, and carefully approaching the field's end often produces the bird.

Many hunters vary their techniques as the season progresses and weather changes. Often overlooked but highly effective is early morning hunting in small grain stubble, a favorite cover type of roosting pheasants. Early in the season especially, careful and quiet movement into this cover at first morning light can provide excellent hunting. Overcast or drizzly days are especially good; in these conditions birds remain longer in the secure, comfortable cover. Late in the season, grain stubble can be productive on overcast evenings or just before a storm breaks. Birds seem to respond to a falling barometer and move into roosting cover early.

As the season progresses, pheasants still retain their early morning and late afternoon feeding habits, but spend more mid-day loafing time in heavier weedy pockets and fencerows. Fireweed, ragweed and wild sunflowers are among the preferred vegetation. Sunny, weedy fencerows bordering sunflowers and corn are choice areas, particularly as autumn days shorten.

Under blizzard or heavy snow conditions, tracking pheasants often produces game. Pheasants will burrow into cover but, especially with snow on the ground, unconcealed tail feathers can give away a rooster's hiding place.

Regardless of hunting techniques used, pheasant hunters are often surprised to learn that North Dakotans have only been hunting ring-necked pheasants since 1931. That first, 1 1/2-day season in Dickey, Sargent and Richland counties had a three rooster limit.

By 1940 the big harvest had commenced and for the first time exceeded 500,000 birds. The following year the number of upland game hunters passed the 50,000 mark for the first time. The "Golden Forties" had begun for pheasant hunters. The harvest was estimated in the millions from 1940 to 1946, climaxed by 1944 and 1945 when nearly 2.5 million were taken each year. This harvest took place in spite of the fact that a war was on, shotgun shells were scarce, gasoline was rationed, and many of the best hunters were in the armed forces.

Seasons were liberal. In 1945 hunters were allowed four hens in possession and could hunt for 136 days. Hunting was so easy it was said by some to be merely killing. The average hunter took over 34 pheasants per season during the four year period 1942-45.

Gunners shot pheasants practically everywhere during these years of high populations. They could easily be shot from the road and walking was unnecessary. The birds "boiled out" of sweetclover patches for those who did get out and walk. The ground where birds concentrated often had the appearance of being tramped down by cattle and was littered with droppings and feathers. There were literally millions of pheasants, with hundreds on one section or in one sweetclover patch. Nearly everyone enjoyed pheasants at the dinner table and servicemen traveling the railroads received free pheasant sandwiches served by the USO and other organizations in places like Mandan, where troop trains stopped. Hunters followed the birds: in the banner year of 1945, 62,000 residents and 4,800 nonresidents bought licenses to hunt in North Dakota. Still, numbers of hunters were small compared with numbers of pheasants that were in the field.

The boom years were coming to an end by 1946, and suddenly there was a clamor for control in a different direction. The pheasant harvest fell off considerably in 1946. Instead of damage complaints from farmers and ranchers, the Department received demands from hunters for predator control, for control of mechanical combines, the weather, even the genes affecting the pheasants - anything to restore the bird to bountiful numbers.

Since 1946 there have been two periods of strong pheasant harvests, though none of the magnitude of the early '40s. Those days are unlikely to ever come again. From a harvest of 60,000 in 1950, the number of pheasants taken slowly climbed until 1963, when 490,000 were harvested. The good years - relatively good, that is - between 1956 and 1963 are generally associated with changes in land use brought about by the Soil Bank. When Soil Bank contracts began to run out in the mid-sixties, pheasant harvests dropped markedly. Land which had been idled in Soil Bank was being brought back into agricultural production. In addition, the winter of 1964-65 was very hard, with a bad blizzard in December and deep snowcover for a long period of time. The breeding stock of pheasants was significantly reduced by the double effect of weather and poor habitat conditions. The pheasant season was closed in 1966, and again in 1969.

The 1970s were years of generally poor pheasant harvests. The decade was a period of massive intensification of agriculture and increased demands on natural resources. In spite of changes in the way upland gunners hunted - an increased use of dogs, for example - hunter success was poor. In the mid-sixties the harvest of sharptails exceeded that of pheasants, and in the 1970s the pheasant harvest fell to third place, behind both sharptails and Huns.

The 1980s were better years for pheasant harvests. How much this rebound can be attributed to a poor farm economy is difficult to say. It is expected that the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), in addition to keeping highly credible land out of agricultural production, will provide good upland game habitat and give impetus to a rise in pheasant populations. Total acres idled through CRP is similar to that idled by Soil Bank. Based on lessons of the past, a significant rise in pheasant populations is likely. Nothing has happened in the last 40 or 50 years to modify Ira Gabrielson's words in 1946 - that "destruction of habitat [and] poor breeding conditions" caused the decline in pheasant populations. It is expected that increased habitat and good breeding conditions will reverse it.

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