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Pheasants fly to Mark Reinert's corn feeder, arriving from a slough to the south and a river bottom to the north of his 90 acres in McLeod County, just west of the Twin Cities.

"It's fun to watch,'' said Reinert, an avid pheasant hunter and president of the McLeod County chapter of Pheasants Forever.

He's among about 70 chapter members who are feeding pheasants this winter, trying to help the local ringneck population survive a long, cold and snowy winter. Others around the state, including about 60 Pheasants Forever members in the Willmar area, are doing the same.

"It's helping,'' Reinert said. "In key areas where people have feeders, they're still seeing birds.''

State wildlife officials in southern and western Minnesota say, yes, it's been a tough winter, but probably not a devastating one — yet — for pheasants. But because cattail sloughs, key wintering areas for pheasants, have filled in with snow, birds are more vulnerable now to a late-winter storm.

"The big thing has been the cold and wind, more than the snow,'' said Randy Markl, Department of Natural Resources area wildlife manager in Windom. But the winds also have blown open parts of some farm fields, allowing birds to peck for waste grain. Still, food is hard to come by.

"All in all, we haven't had any really big storms,'' Markl said. "We probably are faring OK. We see quite a few birds. It's just been a long, cold winter.''

Though feeding pheasants isn't Pheasants Forever's formal policy — officials with the national conservation group headquartered in White Bear Lake prefer food plots or habitat improvements — chapters are free to feed birds.

And many do.

Jim Tetzloff of Spicer said about 60 members of his Kandiyohi County Pheasants Forever chapter have feeders out this winter.

"The endgame is to get as many birds through this nasty winter as we can. Absolutely, it will help pockets of birds,'' he said, even if it doesn't impact the overall state ringneck population. "It's not PF policy, but it's what our members want.''

Planting food plots and creating good winter habitat is a better option, said Matt Holland, a wildlife biologist and Pheasants Forever's director of grant development. Putting out feed can draw pheasants from cover, expose them to the elements and make them targets for predators.

"There are very well-intentioned feeding efforts,'' Holland said, "but if you don't sustain it or put it next to good habitat you can actually do more harm than good.''

Feeding can't stop

Kevin Ochsendorf of Willmar, president of the Kandiyohi County PF chapter, said he makes those points clear to potential pheasant feeders.

"We do not want them buying feeders and corn unless they will feed them the rest of the winter, because if you stop, the birds will starve,'' he said.

Reinert said his chapter distributes 50-pound bags of corn monthly to members with feeders, meaning they go through about 3,500 pounds a month. The feeders are designed so deer can't get at the free chow.

"We tell them to put the feeders in shelter belts, with no tall trees, because of avian predators, and not near highways,'' Reinert said. They also encourage members to put 5-gallon buckets of sand near the feeders for the grit the birds need, so they don't go onto gravel roads, where they can be killed.

The DNR's Markl said feeding efforts can benefit pheasants if the feed helps keep ringnecks close to good winter cover, where they are less vulnerable to weather and predators than in the open searching for food.

But, he said: "I'm not so worried about them starving. That's not an issue just yet. It's more the exposure time.''

In western Minnesota, the snowfall hasn't been heavy, said Dave Trauba, DNR area wildlife manager at Lac qui Parle.

"It's been cold, and I'm sure the birds will be stressed going into spring, but I don't think we've had widespread mortality,'' he said. "We don't have any real cover issues yet where our cattail sloughs are blown in [with snow].''

Added Trauba: "Normally when you get a tough winter, the phones will ring and people will say we need to do something [to help the pheasants]. We haven't had those phone calls yet.''

Meanwhile, ringnecks are facing continued loss of habitat, which contributed to the 29 percent drop in the population index last year. Besides loss of grasslands, Markl said he's seeing more tree groves and fencelines being removed to maximize crop production.

Still, whatever happens the rest of the winter, the wildlife managers and Pheasants Forever members agree that a mild, dry spring will be key.

"If we can get a good nesting season, we can rebuild pheasant numbers in a hurry,'' Trauba said.

Doug Smith •

Twitter: @dougsmithstrib