1/15/2014 9:57:00 AM Late-season pheasants reveal some interesting findings
Ron Kuecker Outdoors Columnist
We did have a few nice days of weather this past December, not many though. There were a couple of times fit to hunt late-season pheasants. Six inches of level snow, no wind, temps just into double digits and birds concentrated near food sources, all were too much temptation for me. I grabbed the Benelli shotgun this time, stuffed three-inch heavy duck loads into it, turned loose the brown dog, and took in a mid-day hunt. The big dog found and flushed several, I downed two roosters into deep snow and although one fell at a duck hunting distance from me, he found it easily. Both birds were completely buried out of view in the snow yet he found them quickly. Snow is not a deterrent to scent flow for dogs (or coyotes or fox). In fact, I even think it enhances it somewhat if it's not extremely cold. His retrieving still needs some work, maybe a professional next spring or more commitment on my part. Unfortunately, like pro trainer John Swanson once told me, "first I have to break them of their bad habits, then build them back up with good habits". Sorta like an army recruit it seems to me. For most of my life I've shot enough pheasants and ducks to train my dogs in the field. In recent years, due to less game and more easily tired feet and legs on my part, my latest dog hasn't had as many opportunities. The bird exams Well, digressing is over. What did I learn from those two beautiful roosters whose entry into the world of fry pans will not effect next years pheasant population? I did a few post mortem exams of those birds before I prepared the two fatties for dinner. They were not yet stressed by the early cold and snow and fortunate enough that someone had done the work of preparing proper cover and a food source for winter survival. One was a young of the year bird. The other was older. I first examined the crops, that paper thin yet tough first stop for bird feed. It stretches enough to hold a lot of food. All food ingested by birds stop there for several hours to be warmed and softened before entering the body for the crushing and grinding activity of the gizzard. Most birds, tweety or game, like to dash out, feed rapidly, then return to safe cover to rest and digest. That's where I interrupted their schedule. Both birds crops were fully distended with corn from the nearby food plot. The old bird had 132 kernels of corn in its crop, the young had a nearly unbelievable 177. That's about half of an ear of corn. The crops also revealed the fact that pheasants do seek out other food sources to unknowingly, I think, balance their diets whenever they can. Both contained several ash tree leaves still showing a bit of green and some mature spears of grass that looked like young foxtail stems. The young pheasant had found some still very green grass and the older pheasants crop contained four or five pheasant feathers. Feathers in the crop? Why the feathers? I don't know for sure but it's my guess that older roosters are quite combative and actually peck at hens and younger roosters as they feed. The feathers are swallowed unwittingly and do in fact, ultimately, provide nutrition benefits. Wings and tails How about those wings and tails? Experienced hunters know that old roosters get out of Dodge much faster than young birds. As much as 10 mph faster flight, studies with a radar gun have found. Tails are almost always longer with age. The young rooster had 8 5/16"] primary wing feathers, the old had 8 11/16". At a 3/8" longer, times all those wing feathers and you can easily understand the faster flight. The older birds two longest tail feathers were 20 1/2" long while the younger's was 17¼. That's a good 3¼" longer and detectable in flight if you look for it. The beak of a pheasant is quite a tool. It's used to harvest all manner of food, to fight for food and to defend its territory in spring. I have seen many of those fights and have a photo of two locked in battle in the middle of Highway 30. The older birds beak was 1/8" longer than the younger and also had a longer, sharper hook. It had the look of a hawk's beak. The take home lesson Well, what's the take home lesson they always say? A good winter food source is of utmost importance to pheasants. It should be natural in its siting and near-safe cover to protect from predators. Birds do seek and attempt to balance the calcium and protein in their diet. There is no substitute for rich, mature, yellow corn when it comes to vitamins, phosphorous and carbohydrates. Competition feeding is a factor of life for pheasants. You can hunt rooster pheasants late into December without hurting next year's population but you should do it mid-day rather than late in the day. It gives hens time to seek cover for the night. If we want to have pheasants in the future we'll have to regulate ourselves some of the time, not wait for the government to do it. Self government without self control will fail.