Reader responds to column

Published 12:55 am Friday, December 26, 2003

By Staff
As an extension of last week's column on pheasants I'd planned this week to suggest things landowners can do to make their property more friendly to pheasants and other upland creatures. However, after receiving responses to the pheasant column with numerous questions, interesting points and some disagreement it's obvious that field is still fertile. Let's put the planned topic off for another day and take a look at some of your input.
One of the more comprehensive and thoughtful responses came from Dan, up Decatur way, which mirrors much of what the rest of you said. One of the things Dan pointed out is that in the early '70s the farms he hunted supported lots of pheasants. Today those farms are unchanged with exactly the same habitat yet no birds. So the question is, in instances such as this where the land remains unchanged how can it be a habitat issue?
The essential key is to think in the overall. In the case of pheasants, to support a metapopulation, a technical term meaning a long term, self sustaining, self propagating population, takes much more area than just a few farms, a township or even an entire county. We're talking an area perhaps the size of all of Southwestern Michigan. A given local population within the metapopulation may be devastated by disease, excessive predation or habitat loss but that has little effect on the overall population of the species. When and if the conditions in the devastated area change for the better the metapopulation naturally repopulates it. That's one reason why even large hunting preserves that meticulously groom their habitat for pheasant can't sustain wild populations. They're just a single, isolated unit. Therefore, they must rely on continual restocking with pen reared birds.
Dan and a number of other of you felt predators, especially coyotes, might be more to blame. In some instances predation can have a major impact on wildlife. Studies show that on some waterfowl refuges raccoons, foxes and skunks reduce nesting success by 70 percent or more. I once lived in a large valley in Washington State that had great numbers of grouse. A pack of coyotes moved in and literally wiped them out in one year. Dan went on to point out that turkeys flourished while pheasant and quail disappeared, perhaps indicating that turkeys are able to escape coyotes because they roost in trees, something the other upland birds don't do.
No matter how much you hate coyotes, which many do, they can't be blamed on this one. Coyotes didn't move into this area (coming up from Indiana) in significant numbers until somewhere around 1990 as I recall. The pheasants were far long gone by then. From day one we had the other predators, fox, 'coon, skunk, possum, etc. and the pheasants were able to cope. That's the natural way of things. As previously mentioned, an unusually large number of predators can inflict serious damage in a given area but that's localized. There we go, back to the metapopulation thing.
The fact that turkeys are thriving (which, by the way, happened many years after the pheasants disappeared) actually supports my upland habitat loss theory. Turkeys are birds of the woodlands, not the uplands like pheasants and quail. They like clearings to strut in and will frequent transitional areas some but their real home is the forest.
Turkeys and deer require just about the same habitat. You may recall that back in the hey-day of pheasants deer were nearly nonexistent throughout pheasant country. Today's abundance of turkey and deer and the lack of upland birds strongly suggests that the upland habitat has given way to forests (and barren agriculture fields). Of course, without man's intervention that is a natural transition.
The odd ringneck still shows up here and there and in Berrien and Van Buren Counties.There's even a few pockets supporting modest numbers of them. However, I believe these scattered birds are the last dying dregs and their habitat is becoming more fragmented every day. Once isolated they become just individual local populations, the kiss of death. How much longer can they hold on? That is in the hands of each and every rural landowner. Merry Christmas all.
Larry Lyons writes a weekly outdoor column for Leader Publications. He can be reached at