SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Songbirds may be shivering and pheasants may be searching for cover as they cope with the winter weather that started in early December in South Dakota.

Several inches of snow fell in parts of the state on Dec. 8. On Dec. 12, portions of west of the Missouri River got almost two feet of snow.

The snow was followed by wind and days of bitter cold throughout South Dakota. And before Christmas and just after there was more snow and more wind including nearly 26 inches in Armour last week.

“We have two feet of snow here. We’ve got giant berms of snow,” said Larry Wold, a member of the Fort Randall Pheasants Forever Chapter.

Wold, who lives in Armour, has seen pheasants in shelter belts around the area.

Two feet of snow has clogged sloughs where pheasants may typically shelter and eat among the cattails, Wold said.

“It shows the importance of tree belts in times like this,” Wold said.

Although shelter belts may offer protection for pheasants this winter, some pheasants have died in the harsh condition so far this winter, said Matt Morlock, the spokesman for the South Dakota Pheasants Forever.

A dead pheasant in the snow. Jones County Emergency Management photo

“We’re hearing of mortality. With a winter like this, it’s inevitable,” Morlock said.

“In areas where there is good habitat, [pheasants] will fare better under conditions like this,” Morlock said.

“Snow and cold are kind of tough on them (gamebirds). The important things they need are food and cover. Snow makes it kind of difficult to get at both of those,” said David Swanson, a professor of biology at the University of South Dakota. His particular interest is ornithology, the study of birds. Winter precipitation high amounts of winter precipitation were negatively associated with pheasant abundance.

USD will have a study published soon on winter conditions and the effect on pheasants. The research shows that high amounts of winter precipitation were negatively associated with pheasant abundance. The research also showed that narrow woodlands, such as shelter belts, were better for pheasants than large, wooded areas, especially in cold winters, said Swanson.

Morlock said areas of north central South Dakota including the Pierre area, Armour area and Aberdeen areas have reported dead pheasants.

He also expects areas of northeastern South Dakota to report dead birds.

“Hopefully we won’t see a large amount die…,” Wold said. Improvements in shelter belts and winter feed stalks should help reduce mortality, he said.

More than 1 million pheasants were harvested during the 2021 hunting season.

Resident and non-resident pheasant hunters in South Dakota spent an estimated $246.8 million 2021, according to the state’s Game, Fish and Parks Department.

Bird watching and bird feeding also have an economic impact in the state. The GFP devotes space on its website to bird watching trails and sites and has maps and other material available.

The Wildbird Feeding Institute is based in Rapid City.

Feeding birds is roughly a $1 to $2 billion industry in the U.S., according to multiple market and research reports.

What about the songbirds?

Swanson has been studying the impact of the cold on songbirds, such as chickadees, goldfinches, juncos and similar.

“Small birds are kind of limited in how much plumage they can add. When you are a big bird you can add more feathers than when you are a small bird and it still won’t disrupt your aerodynamics,” Swanson said.

Small birds get better at shivering during the winter, Swanson said. It’s an internal shivering that doesn’t show on the outside, he said. The shivering produces heat.

“We’ve documented that (shivering) by measuring the energy use under cold stress. And for maximum levels of that in winter, these small birds typically are anywhere from 25% to 50% higher metabolic rate. which is an indicator of energy use. That’s associated with greater heat production capacity,” Swanson said.

How are pheasants, songbirds finding food?

Pheasants may be around the state scratching at snow in fields. They may be scratching for grain in field areas where the snow may not be as deep.

A bird at a feeder during winter.

Wold said some hunters/farmers have left stalks of grain such as corn and soybeans in fields near shelter belts to provide needed food for pheasants and game birds. Those standing stalks are best when they are near a shelter belt, he said.

“You want food in close proximity, so they don’t have expand a lot of energy,” Morlock said.

Birds can also find grass seeds and tree seeds, Swanson said.

Songbirds will have a route between backyard feeders, Swanson said. So, people who are feeding birds should continue but those who haven’t been, should not start, he said.

Several species of songbirds will store food during the winter.

Swanson said they may take a sunflower from a feeder and put in a tree for safekeeping.

Research shows that certain songbirds can remember where their seeds are for at least two months, he said.

Will the pheasant, songbird population survive the winter?

Wold said pheasants, and animals in general, are resilient.

But, in areas where the snow has a consistent snow pack with fewer spots for pheasants to access food and shelter, the gamebirds will have a tougher winter.

“We’ve had bad winters before,” Morlock said, and the pheasant population has rebounded.

The nesting season this spring will be important, he said. Pheasants will need habitat and time to breed and raise young to replenish any losses.

The conservation acres program such as Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)and the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) are still popular in the state and those will provide nesting habitat, Morlock said.

Songbirds adapt to the cold as they do every winter, Swanson said. But he’s concerned about how well and how long songbirds will be able to adapt to increasing dramatic shifts in the weather.

Winters, in general, have gotten warmer but they often also include a polar vortex when temperatures drop below zero, Swanson said.

Typically, it can take a week or two for songbirds to begin to adjust to the cold, he said.

But he’s learned that birds can heat up faster than they can cool down.