Pheasant populations across the Eastern Plains of Colorado will range from slightly better to similar to 2022. One of our best measures of pheasant populations are spring call counts. Every May, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) personnel conduct pheasant “crowing counts” which provide CPW with trend information about male pheasant numbers. Unfortunately, crowing counts provide only a snapshot and cannot predict future populations. However, they do serve as an indicator of abundance of male pheasants going into the nesting season.
In northeast Colorado, pheasant call count surveys declined to a level not seen since 1998, no doubt due to the cumulative impacts of three years of severe drought and a severe winter across much of the region over the winter of 2022/23. Fortunately, the spring of 2023 saw significant and potentially record amounts of precipitation across much of the area. While populations of ring-necked pheasants were very low going into the nesting season this past spring, at least the habitat has had a chance to recover from the severe drought. For the period extending from Mother’s Day until mid-June, it was extremely wet in the northeast. What we can say is that in terms of birds, summer observations were low, possibly due to increased cover. That trend began to shift as we entered the fall period with more birds being observed once corn harvest was underway. Our expectations should be for a slight to moderate increase in bird numbers in most areas.
In southeast Colorado, crowing counts are lower than the northeast, which is very typical for the area. Weather conditions in southeast Colorado were, on average, better or similar to 2022. Although the southeast did not experience the heavy snowfall seen in the northeast, much of the precipitation continued to miss the best pheasant areas in southeastern Colorado. The lack of habitat is a continued concern for southeast Colorado, as are the long-term impacts of drought.
Hunters harvested an estimated 17,041 pheasants in Colorado in 2022-23, which is the lowest on record and an indicator of the severity of the ongoing drought conditions. While stripper head harvested wheat stubble has helped slow pheasant declines, the lack of permanent grass cover, good brood habitat and generally unfavorable weather has severely restricted bird numbers currently. Compounding matters further, the quality and amount of undisturbed Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) lands has drastically declined over the last several years. Many of the CRP fields that served as a great buffer against severe winter weather have expired from the federal CRP program and no longer offer habitat.
NE Colorado (Yuma, Phillips, Sedgwick, Logan, Washington, Morgan and SE Weld counties)
Spotty continues to describe pheasant populations in the northeast portion of Colorado. Populations across the region will be similar to or slightly better than 2022. The stage was set for today’s low numbers with three seasons of drought reducing cover value and then a severe winter, with approximately 80 days of frozen snow cover from mid-December through late February 2023, increasing winter mortality significantly. Shortly after Mother’s Day, rain began to fall in large amounts, continuing through mid-June. July through the present was very dry with some exceptions.
CPW receives several reports from landowners during wheat harvest. Overwhelmingly, reports from landowners in July were observations of few or no broods during wheat harvest. This trend has changed a bit as we entered the autumn period, with increased observations of pheasants in October. As the fall progresses, it seems that the population of pheasants will be very spotty in 2023. As we move into future seasons, 2023 should go down as the initial step for a rebuilding population.
Habitat is much more abundant than what hunters are accustomed to, particularly in terms of cropland stubbles. It is important to note that total CRP acres have greatly declined across the core pheasant range. While some new fields have been established, the relatively low numbers of new fields versus the loss of thousands of acres significantly tilt in the direction of lost acres.
Walk-in Access (WIA) sprinkler corners are closed to WIA hunting when the landowner is harvesting the associated crop. Harvest is ongoing and dry weather will progress greatly in the next couple of weeks. This closure is in effect to allow harvesters to work efficiently and to minimize safety concerns for hunters and harvesters. Corners are posted with closure signs in addition to WIA boundary signs. As of November 15, 2023, corn harvest is estimated to be 95% completed on average, although there are significant fields still unpicked, especially in Sedgwick County.
South Platte River (eastern Morgan, Washington, Logan, Sedgwick)
Bobwhite quail most likely took the brunt of the severe winter the area experienced in 2022-23.
Whistle counts were down 60% across the northeast in 2023. It is very likely that the close to 80 days of deep snow cover, which ultimately turned to ice, led to very high mortality on bobwhite quail within the South Platte corridor. In addition, the South Platte corridor flooded in June, likely reducing nesting success for bobwhites. Hunters should expect very difficult conditions for bobwhite hunting along the lower South Platte corridor. Luckily, bobwhites are a species that are built to withstand severe population fluctuations. For the short term, expect relatively low populations of bobwhites.
East Central Colorado (Southern Yuma, Kit Carson, Cheyenne, Kiowa counties)
Pheasant populations should be better than 2022. Most of this area did not receive the dramatic
blizzard conditions seen farther north, but it did see significant precipitation in May. Pheasant densities will increase within the areas that provide sprinkler irrigation fields. In Kit Carson County, hunters will note a significant loss of CRP acres, which has impacted populations to some degree as well as the amount of land available to hunt. We have seen some new CRP fields in this area, although it is unknown if that trend will continue.
Hunters should note that many areas in WIA in Kiowa County are enrolled primarily for their value for light goose hunting, including some fields that will offer little cover for pheasants and quail.
Pheasants continue to suffer from a general lack of good habitat and drought conditions in southeastern Colorado. Some good habitat does exist in the area around Walsh and Stonington. Pheasant populations may be slightly better than they were in 2022, but still in the poor-fair category. While most of southeastern Colorado was fairly wet in 2023, the core area around Walsh was drier than optimal. Expect to find moderate numbers of pheasants where good habitat exists.
Quail populations are expected to be better than 2022. Bobwhite quail appear to have done pretty well in 2023. The southeast portion of Colorado did not get the severe winter that the northeast did in 2022-23, but did get some timely rains to keep the habitat progressing. Reports on scaled quail are highly variable in 2023, although we did get a few reports of late scaled quail nesting activity and brood observations late into the summer. Expect scaled quail populations to be similar or slightly better than 2022.
- Hunting on private land requires permission. With the exception of land enrolled in Walk-In Access (Colorado Parks and Wildlife has leased WIA lands opening them to hunting), you must obtain permission to hunt private land, whether that land is posted or not.
- Landowners are very perceptive of the actions of hunters, whether on their land, WIA properties, or their neighbor’s property. Trespassing, leaving trash, carcasses, or damaging property leaves a poor image with landowners, while courteous and respectful hunting gives a good image.
- Fall harvest is a very stressful period for landowners. Interrupting harvest or stopping a combine to ask for hunting permission is not a good idea. Standing at the end of the field waiting for the combine to flush birds is not recommended. Both are likely to draw the ire of the landowner and are questionable activities at best when considering how important landowner relations are to gaining and maintaining access.
- Be respectful of other hunters.
Resources for Colorado Pheasant Hunters
How to Field Dress a Pheasant
Learn More About Pheasant Hunting in Colorado
2023-24 Pheasant Forecast by Ed Gorman. Ed is the Small-Game Manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.