By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

The second weekend in November is still a long way off, but Dave Dahlgren isn't running around -- at least not yet -- like Chicken Little.

Instead, he's remaining "cautiously optimistic" about this year's pheasant outlook, despite an unusually early harvest that could be disrupt nesting.

Drought's also a concern, but he said conditions this year are sharply better than last year.

Dahlgren, the state's pheasant expert for the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, also is realistic.

"Should people expect a stellar season?" he asked. "No. We don't have that reproductive potential."

But he doesn't' think it's going to be a bust either.

Breeding populations for pheasants have declined precipitously, he admits, but falling from record highs still means a lot of birds remain.

Crowing counts taken earlier this spring show an average drop of about 50 percent this year from a year earlier.

"That's a real significant drop," he admits. "The thing is, 2011 was an all-time high. They had a 50 percent drop, but they dropped back to average."

Southwest Kansas -- essentially that area south of Interstate 70 -- had even greater declines. Last year, he said, the average crows heard along a 12-mile route stood at 31.

This year, that fell to 8.6.

"So we really had the decline," he said. "Trego County was one of hardest hit counties in the drought."

And that's where farmers harvesting what is one of the earliest crops on record are reporting a lack of pheasants flying up in front of combines.

Newly hatched chicks also are in short supply, but Dahlgren said that's always variable.

He won't know for sure until sometime in August, when the department conducts its brood count, to see what the hatch might have been.

"We don't know what the reproduction success is," he said. "Won't know until August."

If past history is any guide, however, upland game bird populations can spring back pretty quickly.

Southwest Kansas in 2003 high an all-time low while 2006 was an all-time high, he said.

Dahlgren's seen a couple broods himself and has heard of others who have as well.

But the nesting is still going on, with the average nesting taking place in the first two weeks of June -- average being the key, meaning birds are still nesting.

While some of the nests might have been destroyed as farmers made their way through ripe wheat fields, pheasants could try again.

"They are persistent nester," he said, as long as resources are available to build back the strength to produce eggs.

That means there's a need to continuing showers.

Clutch sizes will diminish, however, as pheasants renest, falling with each attempt.

Pheasants won't nest in cut wheat fields, but they will seek out Conservation Reserve Program grasses or strips of grass.

Last year didn't see great production either, yet the harvest by hunters was at the low end of normal.

He said as many as a half-million birds were killed last year.

That's down sharply from a year earlier, when nearly 900,000 birds were killed.

Since 1985, Dalhgren said, the average pheasant harvest has fallen somewhere beetween 600,000 and 700,000 birds.

"We hit the lower end last year because of reproduction," he said.

For southwest Kansas, it's going to take two or three years to build back up to the big numbers it once had.

Northwest Kansas, Dahlgren said, could bounce back this year if reproduction isn't dramatically affected by the early wheat harvest.

"I'm an optimist," he said. "I'm a bird hunter. We still have areas that still have a decent density of birds on the landscape and good reproduction potential."