Notes From the Field: Pheasants, Grasshoppers and Climate Change

RedleggedGrasshopperSioux City, Iowa. The print and television media in South Dakota, Nebraska, and Iowa rarely mentions climate change as a scientific, verifiable fact. This is easy to explain. The agricultural sector is a significant contributor to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (which is hated around here), agricultural production was responsible for nine percent of total U.S. emissions in 2013. Across the Corn Belt, agricultural interests dominant the political and economic order. So, not surprisingly, those interests do not want the media bringing public attention to how Big Ag’s voracious consumption of oil is contributing to climate change and the end of the world as we know it. No, farmers out here in America’s “fly over states” want to keep burning oil and planting corn till the Corn Belt resembles Saharan Africa.

With the latest bout of unprecedented warm temperatures in the Upper Midwest, (it reached 72 degrees yesterday, November 3, in Sioux City, Iowa, not a record but awfully close), meteorologists here are blaming the odd summer-like weather exclusively on El Nino. By now, we all know that El Nino is a mass of warm water in the Pacific Ocean. This year, El Nino is particularly strong. Yet, the weather forecasters in Sioux City do not explain why El Nino is so powerful.

Well, the reason El Nino is messing with the Midwest’s weather has to do with climate change. This year is on track to be the hottest year on record. And atmospheric heat, made worse by the CO2 emissions of Corn Belt farmers, has helped to create that beastly body of warm Pacific water.

In November, the weather in the Midwest is usually nasty. In the past, it wasn’t unheard of for the Sioux City area to experience ice storms, snow, and cold temperatures between Halloween and Thanksgiving. The cold and snow facilitated the hunting of the area’s premier game bird, the ring-necked pheasant. Cold temperatures force pheasants to eat corn to keep their bodies warm. On days with sub-freezing temps, pheasants will hold in thick cover next to harvested corn fields, stepping out of the brush to feed on the corn kernels missed by the big combines. Hunters only had to walk those “rooster staging areas” to kick-up birds.

But with daytime highs this week in the low to mid 70s, pheasants have no imperative to huddle in brush adjacent to the harvested corn fields. Instead, the birds can go anywhere. They can spend their days trotting across harvested corn fields, meandering down rows of soybeans, or aimlessly strutting across the well-groomed grass of a farm yard. To make matters worse, grasshoppers are abundant right now (in the old days, about five years ago, hoppers died off in the last week of September). With hoppers still alive and in huge numbers, pheasants have an energy-packed food source other than corn. What all of this means is that pheasants are spread out right now and avoiding any place that makes them vulnerable to gun-toting hunters, such as thickly-vegetated roadside ditches near corn. So if you have trouble bagging any birds this November, blame the ultimate culprit, climate change, rather than one of its results, El Nino.

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