By Jim Wooley, Pheasants Forever senior field biologist (emeritus)
Understanding High-Quality Brood Habitat
Spring progresses, hatch happens, then suddenly it’s summertime. Life should be easy for that new crop of pheasants or quail, depending on the quality of your summer brood range. To understand good brood habitat, try getting a chick’s perspective. Stretch out in a field of grass and broadleaved forbs. At ground level, look through the growing vegetation and prior year’s dead plant litter. If you can imagine yourself as a 3-inch tall chick, the structure is not unlike what you and I would see gazing into a woodland. Chicks must move through that ‘forest,’ actively feeding and maybe running for their lives. Now you have some insight into a brood’s world, and the cover they need.
Hatch, Then Hungry
Right out of the nest, your broods begin a headlong hunt for bugs. They need rich proteins and fats for growth, and soft-bodied insects like leafhoppers, caterpillars, and nymphs are just the ticket. Since chicks consume bugs almost exclusively in their first 4-6 weeks, good brood habitat must produce a high insect biomass. The challenge is that not all vegetation is equally beneficial. Those soft-bodied bugs like soft, succulent vegetation to feed on — like oats and sweet clover, which creates 10x the bug volume of corn or beans. Clearly, what you provide for brood habitat requires consideration.
Broods feeding in high quality cover may move as little as an acre each day. Easily accessible food means less exposure to predators, and less energy diverted from growth. Broods forced to go on longer treks for food suffer reduced survival. Sod-bound, single-species grasslands and fields choked with years of dead vegetation won’t see much brood (or nesting) use. The bugs just aren’t there, and travel is difficult.
Hens and chicks need diverse cover with low to moderate stem density and plenty of bare soil to move freely from one meal to the next. Good lateral and overhead concealment is critical for brood survival from predator attack, and open vegetation at ground level allows escape if trouble arrives. That kind of early-successional structure, scattered in several places across your farm, can be provided by pairing broadleaved forbs with warm or cool-season grasses.
Brood Cover Breakdown
Typical cool-season brood cover mixtures contain introduced grasses combined with legumes. Brome with alfalfa, for example, the classic pheasant nesting cover, also provides excellent insect production for broods. Vigorous for a few years, these grasses soon begin to dominate, requiring periodic reseeding of legumes.
Mixed prairie grasses, paired with native annual and perennial broadleaves, provide complex habitats for insects and ease of movement for broods, and may offer excellent nesting. Plantings containing several grasses and 10 to 30 forbs are prime habitat for pollinators and other bugs on your brood’s menu. It helps to have both, and broods like the junction of these and cool season covers.