Drought causes pheasant shortage for hunters as the season opens

By Corene Brisendine

This summer’s drought has not only affected the farmers and ranchers, but also the upland bird populations. Pheasant and quail hunting season opens this weekend, but many hunters might walk away disappointed.

One of the largest hunting areas in Riley is Fort Riley. It has about 72,000 acres of huntable land, and Shawn Stratton, supervisory fish and wildlife biologist on the fort, said he expects about 100 bird hunters to be out this weekend.

“The primary reason people come to Fort Riley is the quail,” Stratton said. “Our quail are lower this year because of the drought.”

Stratton said that there are also pheasant on base, but those numbers are also down because of the drought.

John Maike, owner of Flint Hills Gun Works, said he grew up raising pheasant on a farm.

He said the birds are naturally lower in this region because of chiggers. They are cannibalistic, he said, so when a young pheasant gets bitten and scratches the chigger, the other birds see the blood and attack the wounded one.

As a result, the birds kill themselves off. He said the drought has also affected their ability to find cover for nesting and breeding.

“In western Kansas, where pheasant are known, there are cracks in the ground” because it’s so dry, Maike said. “One woman said she put her hand in one and couldn’t feel the bottom.”

Maike said the farmers in the area also do not farm for the birds. He said in other states, like Wisconsin, the farmers will leave pieces of land untouched or strips of grain unharvested within their fields in order to give the birds cover and food to breed and populate.

Then, when hunting season opens, they charge hunters to hunt the birds on their land. He said this helps the farmers make money during the winter, allowing farmers to subsidize their crop profits.

“The farmers leave the strips of land open,” Maike said. “Then they charge a hundred bucks a head to hunt.”

According to Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, the Flint Hills are known for Bobwhite quail, and the quail populations in the northern part of the Flint Hills have remained steady over the past five years.

Adult hunters are required to have completed a hunter’s safety course and purchase a hunting permit to hunt. They also have daily limits on the number of quail and pheasant hunters can take home.

Pheasant are limited to a maximum of four male birds, and quail are limited to eight. Hunters are not allowed to shoot and take home any female pheasant.

The hunters also have to have some sort of identifying part — a foot or the plumage — from the pheasant identifying it as male.

Stratton said hunters wanting to hunt on Fort Riley also require a permit issued by the fort, but it can be purchased at the same places Kansas hunting permits are purchased, including online.

According to the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism website, hunting accidents are low — 17 reported in 2010 in the state with one fatality — but hunters should still be aware of their environments. The department reported 50 percent of the accidents took place when hunting upland birds, like pheasant and quail.

It stated that most accidents occurred when the hunter was “swinging” the bird.

This is when the hunter swings the shotgun ahead of the bird’s flight path in order to have the shot hit it.

When this occurs, the hunter is focused on watching the bird and not always what is in the background.

Pheasant and quail season in Kansas is open this year from Nov. 10 to Jan. 31.

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