As inconvenient as last weekend’s blizzard across much of Minnesota was for people, it was more so — even deadly in scattered instances — for pheasants and some other wildlife. Additional snowfall Wednesday across the far southern part of the state didn’t help.
Here’s a look-see at how Minnesota critters from the Iowa border to the boundary waters are faring during this never-ending winter.
Pheasants: Nesting impact
In a more normal spring, some hen ringnecks already would be nesting (or preparing to). Their breeding season is triggered by lengthening days, and now, in mid-April, if the weather were more temperate and the landscape drier, some pheasant hens would start to lay an egg a day in their nests — or at least dropping an occasional egg in preparation for that process — until a dozen or so of the fragile ovals were collected and incubation could begin.
This year, even before the recent snowstorm, hen pheasants were unprepared to begin that springtime ritual, due to low temperatures.
The good news is that the blizzard’s strong winds blew snow off some fields, and beneath Monday’s sunshine, pheasants were seen across southern and western Minnesota scratching for waste grain in those areas.
“Pheasants had come through the winter in pretty good shape,” said Nicole Davros, Department of Natural Resources farmland wildlife populations and research group leader in Madelia. “Because of that, I don’t think we’ll have a lot of starvation due to the blizzard. They can go without food for a little while. I’m more worried about the storm’s effect on nesting.”
Roadside surveys last fall showed Minnesota pheasants down 26 percent compared to 2016. Most of the decline was due to habitat losses, especially a falloff of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres.
In 2007, when Minnesota had 1.83 million CRP acres, the state’s ringneck harvest topped 600,000 birds. Since then, more than 700,000 CRP acres have been converted to cropland, and the pheasant kill has dropped to below 200,000.
For some uplanders who were afield consistently last fall, hunting exceeded their expectations, indicating, perhaps, that the 26 percent population decrease registered in the roadside survey missed some birds due to a late hatch following re-nesting attempts, or possibly due to weather-related anomalies during the August count.
“We might already have some birds nesting if it were a mild spring,” DNR Lac qui Parle area wildlife supervisor Curt Vacek said this week. “I’ve seen a lot of pheasants out [since the storm]. Some fields were blown open by the wind, which is good. I’ve seen meadowlarks buzzing around since the storm, and they’re a lot more fragile than pheasants.”
Southwest Minnesota pheasants overseen by Wendy Krueger, DNR area wildlife supervisor in Marshall, took the brunt of the storm, with as much as 24 inches of snow falling in Canby.
Rain and hail that preceded the snow might have presented the biggest challenges for pheasants in the southwest.
“I think there was some mortality with the storm,” Krueger said. “We had ping-pong-ball size hail in some places. But the critical time is still coming. If we have a warm, dry nesting season, we can still have a good hatch.”
Early arriving songbirds also would have found trouble last weekend in southern Minnesota, said DNR nongame wildlife supervisor Carrol Henderson.
“Bluebirds in some cases, and tree swallows, they would have had a hard time in the storm,” Henderson said. “Normally, purple martins are back by about April 21, so some of them could have had trouble also.”
Property owners interested in helping these and other songbirds might consider planting bittersweet, smooth and staghorn sumac, and American highbush cranberry, said Henderson, author of the book “Landscaping for Wildlife.”
“Birds don’t necessarily like the fruits of these plants, so they don’t eat them in fall and winter,” he said. “But they’ll eat them for survival during late spring blizzards when nothing else is available.”
Woodcock: Cold is the issue
Woodcock — hand-sized forest game birds — also are among spring’s early arriving migrants. Rob Baden, the DNR Detroit Lakes area wildlife manager, reported a woodcock sighting March 23. Sightings also were reported in Itasca County about March 20, said Greg Hoch, DNR prairie habitat team supervisor.
“For woodcock, snow is not necessarily the big issue, but cold is bad,” Hoch said. “As long as they can probe the ground with their bills, they can usually find something to eat.”
If woodcock descend on northern nesting grounds too late in spring, prime territories will have been taken. But if they arrive too early, they risk the wrath of late-spring storms.
“There’s some danger in these storms, but woodcock have been dealing with these conditions nearly since the Pleistocene era, so they’ll be OK,” Hoch said.
Deer: No dire straits — yet
Concern about deer in the far north would seem warranted this spring, given that unprecedented ice conditions remain on many lakes, including Lake of the Woods, where in places about 60 inches of hard water have been reported.
But whitetails aren’t in dire straits yet, said Tom Rusch, DNR area wildlife supervisor in Tower.
“In the Cook, Orr and Crane Lake areas, and the region north of Lake Vermilion up to Ely, the winter severity index ranges between 120 and 130, and 120 is about average for the city of Tower,” Rusch said. “So conditions aren’t severe yet.
“How long the snowpack remains in that area is the key. Are we going to have starving deer? Probably not. But it’s all incremental. Anytime you push winter into late April and a deer’s metabolism kicks into higher gear, they’re going to need food, especially does that are carrying fawns.”
Dennis Anderson • 612-673-4424