ST. PAUL -- Minnesota’s annual roadside pheasant count showed the colorful game birds are down this year compared to 2020.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources on Monday said the average count across the pheasants' range roughly the southwestern one-fourth of the state — was 41 pheasants spotted per 100 miles. That’s down 23% from 53.5 pheasants in 2020 but still above the 37.6 in 2019.

DNR officials note this year’s count is still above the 37.7 average over the last decade, but pales to the historical average of 90.6 birds per 100 miles since 1955.

Tim Lyons, DNR upland game research scientist, said it's not exactly clear why, but that the summer drought may have impacted both bird numbers and survey results this year.

The drought may have pushed birds farther into the weeds and wetlands in search of wetter areas. In some areas, emergency roadside haying of ditches by farmers may have pushed birds away from the counter’s view. And Lyons said even smoke-filled skies may have had pheasants less active and visible to counters.

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Extreme heat early in the summer also may have been a problem for the birds.

“We usually hope for warm, dry springs for upland birds because their chicks can’t thermo-regulate when they are young, and those cold, wet springs can really do damage to the populations,’’ Lyons told the News Tribune. “But I really don’t know what impact drought is having this year. There just isn’t a lot of data on that for our area. ... It may have been those really hot, 100-degree days early in the summer that really heat-stressed the hens or the young chicks. That may have been a factor.”

While weather plays a role, habitat is by far the biggest factor in pheasant populations, as it is with most wildlife in agricultural areas. Farmland habitat has declined markedly over the past decade as crop prices have increased.

Although expiring contracts led to a decline in federal Conservation Reserve Program acres in 2021, DNR officials note that there was a net increase in conservation on private lands as more than 10,000 acres were protected through other federal and state set-aside programs. An additional 24,000 acres of habitat were permanently protected through U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acquisitions and by the DNR as new or expanded Wildlife Management Areas.

The DNR has been surveying wildlife populations in agricultural areas by counting them along roadsides since 1955. This year’s survey consisted of 163 25-mile-long routes, with 148 routes located in the pheasant range. Observers drive each route in the early morning and record the number of farmland wildlife game species they see.

North Dakota’s late-summer pheasant count was also down 23% this year compared to 2020. South Dakota no longer conducts pheasant surveys.