It's that time of year again when a bird with a brain no bigger than a lima bean outfoxes, outsmarts and generally flummoxes humans, the supposedly superior species.
It's pheasant season, of course.
This year in north central Montana, pheasant numbers will be about the same as last year, which was not that good. The problem the last two years has been cold and wet spring weather, destroying nests or killing chicks. The usual suspects are cursed, too: foxes, coyotes, hawks and too long of a hunting season. Upon closer examination, however, those culprits really don't make much of a dent in the overall pheasant population.
But first the basic biological facts.
Ring-necked pheasants are not native to Montana. They evolved in Asia, and were introduced in Montana in the late 1880's and early 1900's from stock already introduced and flourishing in Oregon, Washington and Utah.
That they are an exotic is not that big of a deal with most people. Lots of other well-liked Montana game species didn't evolve here, either: Brown and brook trout; Hungarian partridge; walleye and smallmouth bass. It's all a matter of perspective.
Of Montana's prairie game bird species – pheasants, Huns, sharp-tailed and sage grouse – pheasants are the most popular with hunters. They are also the only upland game bird species, other than turkey, with a ban on shooting females. Hunters may not legally take a hen pheasant.
Biologically there is no reason not to hunt hens. Study after study has shown that hen hunting does not hurt pheasant populations. Pheasants are short-lived birds; average annual mortality with or without hunting is 60 to 70 percent. That means that a percentage of hens each autumn is surplus to maintaining the next year's population. And a surplus can be hunted without hurting the population.
It's habitat, not hen hunting, that can make or break a local pheasant population. A stubble field stretching to the horizon will hold few if any birds. Neither will a mountain forest.
Good pheasant habitat has a diversity of cover types. The rule of thumb used to be pheasants in creek bottoms and along stream beds with sharptails up on the hills. However, the federal Conservation Reserve Program, which idles marginal ag land, has created pheasant habitat away from stream banks and the birds have responded.
Where ever found, good pheasant habitat includes thickets to provide shade in the summer and shelter from winter's wind driven snow; woody plants especially with thorns for protection from predators; and wetlands or weedy patches for roosting or loafing.
Finally, throw in a nearby grain field for food and green vegetation, fruit and insects for water. Then connect everything with heavily vegetated fencerows, ditches and field edges for travel lanes.
With that sort of cover, food and water pheasants will survive predators, bad winters and hen hunters. Some years they'll do better than others, but they'll make it.
Nesting habitat, while important, is a topic for summer day.
Right now it's fall and pheasant hunting season.