Conservation  |  06/15/2015

Pollinators Pack Protein for Pheasant Chicks

It’s a dangerous world for newly hatched pheasant chicks. In the next several weeks, they’ll hit the ground weighing roughly 18 grams, with downy feathers, little muscle and spindly legs—na├»ve little critters in search of their first meal.  
The transformation from pheasant chick to adult game bird is fraught with potential peril. Predators—from coyotes to fox to raptors—abound. Potentially lethal weather conditions could strike at any moment. And habitat that provides escape cover and food could be scarce or nutritionally inadequate.   
“For pheasant chicks to get through their first week of life—well, they’re really lucky,” said Nicole Davros, upland game project leader for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “Several things have to go right, including finding the right type of habitat that attracts insects. For the first several weeks of their life, pheasant chicks subsist on a diet that’s almost exclusively protein-rich insects.” 
The “right type of habitat” to which Davros refers is pollinator habitat—a mixture of diverse native grasses and flowering plants (forbs) that draws in soft-bodied insects and nourishes pheasant chicks with the protein power they need to grow quickly and ultimately survive. 
“We’re living in an era where there are fewer and fewer acres of grassland across the nation, so it’s critical that we have the best possible habitat, and that can be accomplished by designing it with pollinators in mind,” said Pete Berthelsen, director of habitat partnerships with Pheasants Forever. “Pollinator habitat helps not only pheasants as brood habitat to increase brood survival, it’s also important for pollinators like honey bees and monarch butterflies. When hunters ask why PF is promoting pollinators, the answer is simple: It’s really good for pheasants and ultimately hunters themselves as well.  It’s an organizational priority to get the best possible habitat on the landscape we can.” 
Pheasants Forever’s ongoing campaign to promote pollinators is as diverse as the habitat they need to survive. One rung is public policy. Another is public education through its grassroots chapter system, particularly with budding youth conservationists. Still another is forming partnerships with like-minded groups, businesses and agencies to design more diverse, pollinator-friendly grassland habitat beneficial to pheasants, quail and other ground-nesting birds.
“There’s a societal component to consider with pollinators too, and it ties directly into our global food supply,” said Berthelsen, who throughout the year is giving educational seminars across the country on the importance of pollinator habitat. “Pollinating insects are an essential component in global food production. For example, one in three bites of food we eat requires a pollinator to make it to our table. That’s significant.” 
Yet, Berthelsen said, monarch butterfly populations have decreased roughly 90 percent in the last 20 years, while commercial honeybee keepers are experiencing roughly 30 percent losses annually. Such declines in pollinators, he said, have economic consequences, particularly in the agricultural sector. Pollinators alone contribute more than 24 billion annually to the U.S. economy, according to federal statistics.  
 “This issue isn’t going away,” Berthelsen said. “Pollinators contribute substantially to the U.S. economy and are vital to keeping fruits, nuts and vegetables in our diets.”

Policy and Pollinators

While pollinator declines have spurred spirited debate, most agree the loss of quality grassland habitat is the main reason for the decline. Dave Nomsen, vice president of governmental affairs for Pheasants Forever, points to CRP—the Cadillac of federal conservation programs—as a case in point. The Conservation Reserve Program, he said, currently has a national allotment of 24 million acres, down from the historical high of 39.2 million. 
“We had roughly a 10-year period where we basically maintained 39 million acres on the ground, but that has changed significantly in recent years,” said Nomsen. “So the question is how do we maximize the benefits on our existing conservation acres? One way is diversifying those habitats, making them attractive for pollinators as well as wildlife production. It’s a natural win-win.” 
In the last federal farm bill, Nomsen worked closely with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to incorporate more pollinator-friendly seeds mixes as CRP options for landowners. The end result: a new CRP practice (CP 42) for pollinator habitat. 
“High-quality Monarch butterfly habitat is also high-quality pheasant brood habitat,” said Nomsen. “If you’re chewing on an almond in an airplane you need to be thinking about native prairie in the Dakotas that benefits pheasants. Why? Because there’s a direct connection.” 
Nomsen said the new pollinator CRP practice only “targets a small portion of acres” within a CRP stand, which is easier for landowners to manage and keeps costs down. “Not every single CRP acre needs to be pollinator habitat,” Nomsen, noting PF’s state Farm Bill biologists can help landowners design and fund pollinator habitat on their conservation acres. “A few acres go a long ways. Pheasants chicks will find that habitat.” 
In the next federal farm bill, Nomsen said he will work closely with policymakers to expand pollinator habitat as options in other federal conservation programs. “It’s a high priority,” he said. “We’re not talking about monocultures of milkweed [critical to monarch populations]. We’re talking about diverse grassland systems that have multiple benefits.” 
Nomsen said Pheasants Forever will also increase its governmental affairs exposure in Washington D.C., including adding a new position in the nation’s capitol—an organizational first. “When debate begins on a new farm bill, we’re going to have a new Congress and a new administration, which means we’ll have hundreds of staffers and congressional members to educate about pollinators,” he said. “It’s a big task, because agricultural committee members are scattered from coast to coast now. Traditionally, most members were primarily from the Midwest and the Great Lakes states.” 

Pollinators and Public Education 

Educating the public on the necessity of pollinator habitat is also a vitally important organizational priority, said Drew Larsen, national habitat education specialist for Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever. 
Larsen oversees the organization’s Youth Pollinator Habitat Program, which provides support to more than 750 grassroots chapters and their partners to engage youth groups, families and communities in establishing pollinator habitat projects. 
“A huge part of what we do is public education,” said Larsen. “It’s about increasing awareness about declining pollinator populations, the link between pollinators and pheasants, as well as discussing and learning about the multiple benefits of pollinator habitat. It’s exciting to be apart of it.”
Larsen said the hands-on program provides training, from start to finish, on how to plan and manage a pollinator project. To date, Larsen said, 46 projects (totaling 46 acres) have been completed in 11 states with 2,466 participants. Funding grants have come from numerous sources, including the Nebraska Environmental Trust, SportDOG, DuPont Pioneer, the Staples Foundation, and many others. This spring, Larsen said, more than 30 new pollinator projects have been slated. 
“It’s going great, and interest has been strong, but there’s still a lot of work to do in providing all the training tools needed to pull off a project,” said Larsen. 
Larsen said the educational program has the added benefit of getting kids outdoors and learning about the environment and the plight of honeybees and monarch butterflies, as well as the habitat needs of pheasants and other ground-nesting birds. “It’s harder to keep kids engaged in the classroom, so getting them in the field is really important and will pay dividends down the road for conservation in general,” said Larsen. “Research tells us that kids who spend more time outdoors are a lot healthier emotionally and physically, get better grades and are less prone to depression than those who are constantly fixated on their phones, computers and other electronic devises.” 

Pollinators and Partnerships

Over the last few years, Pheasants Forever has formed numerous partnerships across the nation to promote pollinators and pollinator habitat. 
One such example is a multi-faceted effort in North Dakota, where the North Dakota Industrial Commission awarded a $173,750 grant to Pheasants Forever from the state’s Outdoor Heritage Fund. In partnership with the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Pheasants Forever will use the funding to improve 1,250 acres of upland habitat important to pheasants, sharp-tailed grouse, pollinating insects, as well as other wildlife. 
The project, aptly named the North Dakota Pollinator Partnership, will enhance those acres through the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP), a USDA private lands conservation program. Roughly 1,000 acres will be new WRP contracts on ground that’s being converted from cropland to upland habitat. The remaining 250 acres will be converted from brome grass to high-diversity prairie habitat.  
Though North Dakota has been a top-tier pheasant-hunting destination (as well as the nation’s No. 1 honey-producing state), the state has in recent years lost roughly 1.5 million acres of CRP, quality habitat important to pheasants and pollinators. “The North Dakota partnership is one way to offset some of those grassland losses with quality, diverse habitat,” said Berthelsen.  
Another example: In an effort to boost “flower power” across the state’s pheasant range, Pheasants Forever has partnered with the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks to promote a new seed mix to bolster its existing statewide wildlife food plot program. For the first time this spring, landowners were offered a nine-species blend of flowering cover crops to encourage insect production important for newly hatched pheasant chicks and other upland-nesting birds. 
“Wildlife agencies are stressing the benefits of pollinator habitat because we’ve actually started to see dramatic declines in many of our insect populations, in large part because of habitat loss, insecticide use and more and more corn and soybeans on the landscape,” said Brian Pauly, a private lands habitat biologist with the GF&P. “Pheasant chicks in particular need these insects as forage for the first several weeks of their lives. Soft-bodied insects are some of the highest protein food sources they can consume. They’re indispensable for pheasant chicks.”
Started more than a decade ago, the GF&P’s annual food plot program gives seed mixes—typically corn and sorghum—to any landowner willing to signup. In addition to the seed mix, the state pays landowners $20 for each planted acre, with a maximum enrollment of 30 acres per landowner. 
“In most cases, food plots aren’t necessary in order to sustain wildlife, but they definitely make it a whole lot easier,” said Pauly. “Corn and sorghum are extremely beneficial when temperatures are coldest, in December, January and February, but have little value the rest of the year. However, the flowering mix, if planted in early May, typically starts to flower in the middle of June, which coincides with the average peak of the pheasant hatch. With the mix we’ve developed with Pheasants Forever, flowering will continue throughout late summer and provide the insects pheasant chicks need to grow and hopefully survive.” 
Pauly said the GF&P has about 900 landowners enrolled in the food plot program. This year, he said, roughly 10,000 acres have been planted statewide, with roughly 2,200 utilizing the new flowering seed mix. 
“For the first year of a new program, I think the new mix has been well received by landowners,” Pauly said. “With the ongoing loss of grassland habitat for pheasants and other wildlife, we have to maximize the benefits of every acre we have. Pollinator habitat helps us achieve that goal, and hopefully hunters will see the benefits this fall.”  
Pauly said the idea for the “third option” flowering mix is the brainchild of Pheasants Forever and his agency. Pheasants Forever’s state habitat biologists helped design the new seed mix, enroll landowners into the new program, and educate chapters and others about the importance of pollinator habitat across the state. 
“Adding the flowering-mix option likely wouldn’t have got off the ground without the help and expertise of Pheasants Forever,” Pauly said. “They really helped educate and spread the word about this new program through its grassroots chapter system.” 
With PF’s continued help, Pauly hopes to expand the program next year. “I’m telling landowners who are trying this to go walk through their corn food plot in July and then go walk through their flowering food plot and make a mental note of the many insects they’re seeing. If they can see more insects, the birds are seeing more insects, too.” 
June 15-21 is National Pollinator Week. You can support Pheasants Forever’s efforts to create pollinator-friendly upland habitat by becoming a member. For more information about Pheasants Forever’s efforts to improve pheasant and quail populations be creating pollinator habitat, contact us
Story by Tori J. McCormick

Photo Credits (Top to Bottom): Roger Hill, Rachel Bush, Drew Larsen, Pete Berthelsen