A few hardy and determined pheasant hunters were in the field New Year's Day despite the winter conditions. The National Weather Service had issued a Wind Chill Advisory for much of the state, including the Minot region.
URGENT - WINTER WEATHER MESSAGE
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE BISMARCK ND
A late-season pheasant hunter and his dog approach likely pheasant cover. The North Dakota upland game hunting season ends at sunset today.
1200 PM CST TUE DEC 31 2013
...DANGEROUS WIND CHILLS ACROSS PARTS OF THE NORTH AND EAST CENTRAL
THROUGH WEDNESDAY MORNING...
DANGEROUS WIND CHILLS TO 30 BELOW CAN BE EXPECTED THROUGH WEDNESDAY MORNING FOR AREAS ALONG AND EAST OF A LINE FROM BOWBELLS TO MINOT...
DRESS IN LAYERS...COVER EXPOSED SKIN...AND LIMIT OUTSIDE TIME.
The weather was as nasty as the NWS warned but, fortunately, the wind died down much sooner than predicted. That left hunters willing to brave the elements with a window of virtually calm winds by mid-morning. The temperature was still a few degrees below zero. However, with no wind and another round of grueling winds chills forecast for the final weekend of the season, the New Year's Day weather appeared to be a reasonably good opportunity to get one last pheasant before season's end.
As those hunters who took advantage of the conditions soon learned, the pheasants were doing the same. The birds were out in the open, scratching through snow cover to get to feed without having to endure punishing winds.
Roosters stood out against the snowy background, easily identified due to their red cheek patches, white neck bands and telltale long tails. Approaching them, though, was very difficult. As soon as the birds saw or heard a hunter, the colorful birds would run or take flight, either for nearby cover or some other distant place beyond a hilltop. For hunters and dogs, pursuing them through the snow was physically taxing.
Snow cover throughout the Minot region is generally above the boots on the flat, but much deeper where winds have caused considerable drifting. Hunters and dogs trekked slowly through snow where it was fluffy. In some places the snow was crusted over enough to hold the weight of a dog but not the hunter.
Breaking through the overlying crust usually meant plunging into waist deep snow or worse. Often while hunters were contending with very slow movement due to deep snow, the pheasants were on the move. Getting within shotgun range was as difficult as it was rewarding.
A couple of rooster pheasants harvested New Year's Day had ample body fat and full crops, meaning they were not yet showing any undue stress from winter conditions. However, as pheasant hunters know, January and February can be very challenging times for wildlife in North Dakota.
Pheasants and winter survival
Pheasants often seek the cover of cattail sloughs during the winter. There they can burrow underneath the snow and find pockets of shelter beneath a cattail cover. Cattails also act as a collection point for windblown snow. During harsh winters, they can fill in with snow entirely, sometimes entombing pheasants where they believed they were protected from the elements.
"They'll get under snow for thermal cover. They'll pretty much stay in that snow cave," said Aaron Robinson, North Dakota Game and Fish Department upland game biologist. "Partridge use that snow to an advantage. Pheasants have a more difficult time doing it."
Partridge are known to burrow into the snow to escape from cold winds. Inside their igloo-type enclosures, they huddle close together and share body heat. Partridge also are adept at escaping from snowy caves. Pheasants often do not, especially if they have had difficulty finding enough food to boost their energy level. Under such adverse conditions they are likely to die in place.
"Cold temperatures definitely have an impact on them if they can't find food," said Robinson. "They do know where to scratch to find food. They won't stray too far from cover. In the cold, they just try and maintain their body temperature."
The number of pheasants in the state has been on the decline for the past few years. Diminished habitat and tough winters, combined with a wet and cold nesting season in 2013, have been cited as reasons leading to fewer pheasants. With fewer birds on the landscape to potentially produce young next spring, an increase in winter mortality would slow recovery.
"At this time of year they try to find cover in tree rows, farmsteads and under pine trees," said Robinson. "The birds are bunching up. So far it is probably a typical winter."
Whether it be pheasants, partridge or sharp-tailed grouse, winter has a harsh way of eliminating birds too weak to cope with cold, wind and snow.
"If they can't maintain body temperature, they just die," said Robinson.
For now, much of the snow cover on cropland where pheasants are finding food is loose enough and shallow enough for the birds to be able to scratch through it. If the snow gets too deep, or a hard crust forms on top of it, birds can expend so much energy searching for food that they'll find survival difficult. While a spell of warm weather may offer some relief, it can also create a hard crust on a snowpack as temperatures drop.