Lack of blizzards, drier spring leads to Minnesota pheasant rebound

This year’s statewide pheasant index was 53.5 birds per 100 miles of roads driven.

Minnesota pheasants up
A hunter takes aim at a rooster pheasant in flight in this 2017 photo. The Minnesota DNR said Tuesday that its annual roadside pheasant survey showed a 42 percent increase in pheasants counted over 2019, including a 146% increase in southwestern Minnesota. File / News Tribune

Minnesota’s pheasant population appears to have done extremely well during a winter with few blizzards and a drier spring nesting period across much of the bird’s territory in the state.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources on Tuesday released the results of its annual roadside survey that showed the number of pheasants counted up 42% over 2019 and 37% above the 10-year average.

The pheasant increase hit an astounding 146% over 2019 in the state’s prime pheasant habitat in southwestrn Minnesota.

This year’s statewide pheasant index was 53.5 birds per 100 miles of roads driven. All regions of the pheasant range reported an increase in pheasant counts, with the southwest reporting the greatest increase — there, observers counted 90.5 birds per 100 miles.

Some historical perspective, however, to tamper enthusiasm: The 53 birds per 100 miles is still just a fraction of the more than 300 birds per miles counted in the 1950s and well below recent highs of over 100 birds per 100 miles in the early 2000s. Still, it’s the first good news in years for pheasant hunters in the state after the bird’s numbers dropped over the past decade due to the loss of unplowed grassland habitat taken out of the federal Conservation Reserve Program as farmers planted more corn.


Minnesota’s pheasant season begins Oct. 10 and runs to Jan. 3.

“The weather this spring and summer was favorable for pheasants and enabled more hens to raise chicks, which drove the increase,” Tim Lyons, DNR upland game research scientist, said. “We didn’t get hit by spring snow storms or heavy rainfalls like in 2019 and that really is what let hens nest earlier and be successful.”

Though the spring was cooler than average, rainfall was at or below average across much of the state.

“Successful nests earlier in the breeding season also means that chicks will be in better shape going into the fall and winter, which can improve their odds of survival,” Lyons said. The peak pheasant hatch was approximately four days earlier than average this year.

Habitat drives the pheasant population, with weather playing a lesser role in year-to-year fluctuations.

Hunters can expect great opportunities to see birds in the southwest and very good hunting prospects in the west-central, central and south-central regions, which all reported more than 50 birds per 100 miles.

DNR officials said there is better news on the habitat front with a net gain of 10,000 acres of former cropland going back into the Conservation Reserve Program since 2019, a small total but in the right direction.

Monitoring pheasant population trends is part of the DNR’s annual August roadside wildlife survey, which began in 1955. Wildlife managers and conservation officers in the farmland regions conduct the survey during the first half of August. This year’s survey consisted of 169 25-mile-long routes, with 153 routes located in the pheasant range.


Observers drive each route in early morning and record the number of farmland wildlife game species they see. The data provide an index of species abundance and are used to monitor annual fluctuations and long-term population trends of pheasants, Hungarian partridge, eastern cottontail rabbits, white-tailed jackrabbits, mourning doves, sandhill cranes and white-tailed deer.

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John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at
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