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To Minnesota pheasant hunters, state wildlife researcher Nicole Davros is best known as the bearer of bad news.

To co-workers at the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), she’s the pragmatic, upbeat team leader who wants to make a difference in favor of more upland game.

“I know our numbers look down,” Davros said in an interview. “But I’m optimistic for the next five years.”

When the 11-week ringneck season opens Saturday at 9 a.m., hunters will put to the test a grim 2017 pheasant report. Pheasant counts in a standardized DNR survey conducted in August plunged 26 percent below last year’s level and 32 percent below the state’s 10-year average. The report was delivered last month by Davros and DNR research biologist Lindsey Messinger from their office in Madelia.

Davros, a conservation biologist who has rapidly gained research authority at the DNR, said she has a hunch the roadside survey undercounted birds. She has seen it before when pheasants don’t nest until late in the season. She bases her optimism on the paradox that rooster numbers showed improvement in the survey while hens and broods went missing.

Still, as the acting wildlife research supervisor in Minnesota’s farm country, her big-picture outlook for pheasants is tied to the birds’ shrinking habitat. There have been noticeable gains in public grassland, but total undisturbed grassland habitat has taken a massive hit since 2007. In that time, 686,800 private farm acres planted in grass have been returned to crop production with the expiration of federal payments to farmers under the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).

While conservation groups, environmentalists, some farmers and natural resource managers push for a nationwide revival of CRP, Davros continues to study how pheasant habitat is managed. She’s searching for breakthroughs in land management techniques to boost populations.

Joe Stangel, the DNR’s acting assistant regional wildlife manager in Nicollet, said Davros fits the agency’s mold for wildlife researchers. She advocates for hunters and studies new ways to manage land to benefit game birds, Stangel said. She moonlights as a college professor and holds a Ph.D. in ecology, but she’s not an ivory tower type.

“She’s very pragmatic,” Stangel said. “She’s not willing to test techniques that aren’t useful to land managers.”

Spotted antbirds

In the summer months of 2000 and 2001, Davros searched a tropical rain forest in the Republic of Panama for spotted antbirds. She was a field research assistant at the time, studying a species that thrives on bugs stirred into the air by swarms of army ants. Her duties included netting and banding adult birds — a skill she brought to Minnesota.

Netting pheasant hens and attaching transmitters to them is enabling the DNR to pinpoint where the birds take their chicks to eat and hide from predators. The study isn’t done yet, but Davros has an inkling that the birds care more about the structure of the vegetation (think short and airy or tall and thick) than any particular plant species.

“Radio telemetry allows us to follow hens to see where they are nesting and nest survival in relation to the vegetation community,” Davros said.

It could be that the grasses most preferred by the birds don’t require expensive forb seed mixes that DNR has used in the past.

“We’re taking a step back to see what they are selecting,’’ she said.

Davros grew up with two brothers and a sister in Dolton, Ill., a far southern suburb of Chicago. Her dad was a roofer and her mom was a waitress. Her uncle raised German shorthaired pointers and she always had an interest in the outdoors, but she never thought she could make a living at it.

Her outlook changed as she delved further into studies of animal ecology and the environment, first as an undergrad at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, then as a Master’s student at Iowa State University and finally as a Ph.D. student at Illinois.

Davros, who commutes to Madelia from her home in Mankato, has studied Canada geese in northeastern Illinois, the forest ecology of black-throated blue warblers in New Hampshire and bird nesting success in suburban shopping mall parking lots.

Pesticide study

It’s a touchy subject in her farmland district, but she’s now collaborating with U.S. Geological Survey and Loyola University to study insecticide exposure for pheasants and other grassland wildlife in Minnesota. The project, funded by a $250,000 grant from state taxpayers, is looking at whether agricultural spraying to kill aphids is drifting onto publicly owned wildlife management areas and killing bugs needed by pheasants for food.

“We don’t know what we are going to find,” Davros said. “But we do know [through the telemetry study] that birds are running through these fields when spraying is happening.”

Regardless of the study’s outcome, Davros said she is wired to work with farmers for solutions. She has been taught over the years to apply science for the benefit of wildlife within the scope of any conservation program — be it for water quality, pollinator protection or prairie plant restoration.

“There’s lots of ways we can make conservation happen on private lands and still have farmers have a paycheck at the end of the day,” Davros said.

Davros is a casual pheasant hunter, certified firearms/hunter safety instructor and a member of Pheasants Forever. She’s a birder, for sure, but unapologetic about doing most of her watching from the kitchen. It’s probably due to burnout, she said, from long days in the field on bird studies.

“I’m a really lazy birder and I’m OK with admitting that,” Davros joked. “I can get really excited about it, but on your average day I don’t want to get in my car and go birding.”

Bill Schuna, area wildlife supervisor for the DNR in Slayton, said Davros has meshed well with her colleagues in southern Minnesota. She doesn’t just listen to the desires of land managers, he said, she seeks out their opinions.

“I’m enthralled with her research,” Schuna said. “She’s going to find out where these pheasants like to go.”

As for her hunting plans this fall, Davros said she needs to set some dates.

“It’s more fun with a dog and I don’t have one,” she said. “You can only invite yourself out with other people so often.”