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Pheasants, like these walking Saturday morning along a road north of Willmar near Solomon Lake, are becoming a common sight this winter as the birds feed in more open areas free of crusted snow. (Ron Adams/West Central Tribune)

Snow, cold hard on area wildlife

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WILLMAR -- This winter's growing snowpack and spate of subzero temperatures is not record-setting, but it is putting stress on wildlife populations in the region.

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The stress on pheasants is the most visible at this point. The birds are readily seen feeding along roads and in open fields. Their presence in open areas where they are vulnerable to predators is a sure sign that they are under stress, according to Matt Holland, New London-based director of conservation for Pheasants Forever in Minnesota.

"They have to be wondering what happened to all of the cover,'' he said.

The hard-crusted snow has made it more difficult for the birds to reach food sources, and the cold temperatures increase their need for calories. As a result, they spend more time feeding and have to search for foods in areas away from their preferred cover and shelter.

These conditions give the advantage to the birds' main predators, including great horned owl, fox and coyote.

Feeding can help the birds through tough winters, but Pheasants Forever offers a strong word of caution before anyone puts food out for the birds. Placing food along roadways is dangerous for the birds and motorists alike.

Place food where pheasants are being seen in the open, but also make certain it is located near a source of cover. Start with small quantities so as not to attract deer. Once started, feeding should continue as the birds become dependent on it.

Cover is what the birds need most of all. Pheasants are very adept at finding their own sources of food, said Holland. What they need to carry them through tough winters is shelter such as cattail sloughs and well-designed woody cover areas.

Sheltered areas are the preferred cold weather destinations for everything from songbirds to deer, according to LeRoy Dahlke, wildlife manager with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources office at Sibley State Park.

Dahlke said there is no doubt that the subzero weather and crusted snow cover is making it tougher for all wildlife in the area. The deer have proven more mobile in this year's snow than he would have expected, but he said they are working harder for the calories they need.

Dahlke has not received any reports of deer depredation problems, at least not yet. He said he would not be surprised to learn that there are cases where deer are foraging in farm yards or on stacked bales of hay.

It's an early start to the winter stress for the wildlife, but the true test will come in the next two months. A warm-up and decrease in the snow cover would clearly benefit the wildlife, he said.

If the tough conditions continue, the results will be seen come spring. Stressed wildlife will produce fewer young.

For more on feeding pheasants, see the Kandiyohi County chapter of Pheasant Forever Web site: www.kandipf.com

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