VIRGIL, S.D. — Sprih Harsh moved nearly 8,000 miles from her home in India to study South Dakota’s pheasants.
So when she first met with state Game, Fish & Parks Department officials about the project, the 28-year-old working toward her doctorate in wildlife science was met with a big pot of pheasant soup.
“Eating my own subject was weird,” she said, laughing, “but it tasted good.”
Stationed in Virgil — population 16 and located southwest of Huron, South Dakota — Harsh is at the center of the most comprehensive study on pheasants ever assembled. Through the use of radio collars, researchers are tracking pheasants to learn all aspects of the upland game bird’s survival and reproduction habits.
The study — facilitated jointly by GF&P and South Dakota State University — will span five years and originated from a recommendation of Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s Pheasant Habitat Work Group.
Harsh and others helping with the project started gathering data in the field about a month ago.
The project’s planning began in 2015, and researchers will be in the field for three years. The final results are expected in 2020, when the researchers will make conclusions that explain which management recommendations most favorably impact pheasant populations.
“I love doing science that matters,” said Dr. Andrew Gregory, the principal investigator for the project.
Gregory, 36, is an assistant professor of spatial ecology, which means his expertise is in understanding how changing landscapes influence populations of specific species. In this case, it’s pheasants, but he’s also conducted extensive research on prairie chickens and grouse.
While Harsh is the day-to-day information gatherer to obtain her doctorate from SDSU, Gregory is the main supervisor or, as he calls it, “quality control” for the project. Based in Bowling Green, Ohio, Gregory visits South Dakota periodically for the study, but his main duties are to oversee development of the technical reports to GF&P and make recommendations based on the results. Knowing the importance of pheasants to South Dakota and the state’s economy adds “a little bit of extra pressure.”
“This data that we’re creating is going to be used,” Gregory said. “You have to get it right, and that’s the fun part. If you mess up, there’s real consequences to that for the population of pheasants and local and regional economies.”
Tuesday morning was anything but ideal conditions for pheasant trapping.
As the sunrise broke the horizon, Harsh and two field technicians started on their typical route to check corn-baited, circular cages for pheasants.
The days with the most success in catching pheasants have been brutally cold or snowy, as pheasants are on the hunt for food. Tuesday, though, held a light breeze with average temperatures, good enough for a hen to slip into one of their seven trapping locations within a frozen cattail slough alongside a road.
With precision and ease, Harsh and Hilary Syvertson, of Kalispell, Montana, worked the cage loose and corralled the bird.
“We’re lucky we got her,” said Harsh, who chose this study because she wanted to learn more about birds.
The study focuses mainly on hens, because the female bird holds a greater responsibility to the future of the species by producing chicks each spring. Knowing how hens survive is crucial, the researchers say.
With the bird cradled in her arms, Harsh brought the hen into the pickup and began taking notes and preparing it for a new necklace.
Measurements of the bird were recorded, it was equipped with a metal leg band and then a radio collar, a bit larger than a 50-cent piece, was draped around the bird’s head and onto its shoulders. Each radio collar has its own unique frequency for tracking purposes.
Syvertson and Charlotte Catalano, of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, are the two field technicians working for the next six months on the project. Then, new technicians will come in.
Thus far, Harsh, Syvertson and Catalano have collared 57 pheasants since the final week of December, some of which have already died. The goal is to track at least 100 birds each year during the study.
When the hen’s new collar was firmly in place, the bird was released back to the wild, scurrying off to its cattail-decorated home.
With the study still in its early stages, one trait about pheasants has stuck out to Harsh.
“They’re very strong, robust birds,” she said.
The radio collars are rather fascinating, GF&P Upland Game Biologist Travis Runia said.
“Each bird has its own radio station, if you can think of it that way,” Runia said.
Runia — the chef who made Harsh’s pheasant soup — will dabble in assisting with the project throughout the year. He explained South Dakota’s most extensive pheasant studies, up until now, have been two years or less, and most have focused on nesting and the spring hatching season.
With the new study, pheasants will be monitored year round, and data collection will be most intense during winter, spring and summer.
To gather that data is quite a process, and finding the collared birds isn’t always simple.
On the backside of the radio collar placed on each bird is a specific number, such as “165.521,” which is the frequency, or a radio station, Harsh and the field technicians use to locate the bird after its release.
After checking traps each morning, Harsh and the field technicians go to sites where birds were collared and start searching. A massive antenna protrudes from the top of the researchers’ truck that spins in a full circle and looks for individual frequencies sent by the collar.
The antenna will track the bird as far away from the vehicle as three miles. Sometimes it takes up to 15 to 45 minutes to locate the bird, Harsh said, and South Dakota’s strong winds can be a pain to work with the large antenna.
Gregory explained radio tracking is one of the most common methods used in wildlife science to learn about animal survival. The collars send a pulse that’s picked up by the antenna, which then plays one of two songs to a receiver in the truck.
“The first song is ‘beep … beep … beep,’ ” Gregory said, explaining when the bird is alive, the song plays at about 60 beeps per minute. “The second song is ‘beep, beep … beep, beep.’ If the bird holds still for about six hours, with no movement, then a small switch in the collar is flipped and the song changes to ‘beep, beep.’ … When we hear that, we need to go investigate, as that generally means the bird is dead.”
When the bird is alive, though, researchers look for the strongest signal and collect three bearings from three different locations to pinpoint the bird’s location. Computer software then calculates the geographic coordinates of the bird and log the time of day and detailed location, whether it was in a shelter belt, CRP grass, a cattail slough or elsewhere. Eventually, researchers will determine where the birds had the best survival rates and successful breeding locations.
George LeGrand is happy to help with anything that involves wildlife and the environment.
The 62-year-old landowner near Virgil was approached last fall by GF&P officials about offering up his property as part of the study.
He was raised on the farm where he lives and has worked on the property each year since purchasing it in 2004 to help improve habitat for wildlife.
“During the high-priced crop years, a lot of guys were tearing out trees and I was planting them,” he said. “I still have a couple years of improvements left.”
LeGrand is pleased to see South Dakota taking a strong interest in studying pheasants.
And while this study recently got underway in the field, the idea of it sparked in 2014 from Daugaard’s Pheasant Habitat Work Group, a committee formed following the Governor’s 2013 Pheasant Habitat Summit.
As one of eight recommendations to improve South Dakota conservation efforts for pheasant habitat, the work group determined it would be beneficial for landowners to have a digital mapping tool to show which acres on their farms would be best suited for habitat development.
“This ‘farm the best, conserve the rest’ principle,” the work group’s final report says, “can best be implemented when producers have information on all the options, and the financial implications of those options, readily available.”
To gather that information, GF&P is contributing about $400,000 over five years to the study. The funds are provided by a federal aid in Wildlife Restoration grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Most of the expense is the radio collars — which range between $180 each for more basic ones and $1,500 for newer GPS units — mileage and travel and pay for field technicians. Student salary and housing is picked up by South Dakota State University through grants.
“There’s such a limited pool of money to do research,” Gregory said, “that if you’re not doing research that’s going to benefit somebody or something, you’re wasting money.”
And for South Dakota’s economy that saw $170.1 million spent on pheasant hunting during the 2015 season, Runia — South Dakota’s lead pheasant investigator — says the study is well worth the time and money.
“The benefits of this paramount study will be worth the investment by vastly improving our knowledge of pheasant habitat needs in South Dakota,” he said.