Create the Ultimate Back 40 for Pheasants

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IT’S CHALLENGING TO FORMULATE A HABITAT RECIPE THAT WILL ATTRACT AND SUSTAIN PHEASANTS ON A SMALL ACREAGE. BUT IT CAN BE DONE. USE THESE 4 HABITAT BUILDING BLOCKS TO MAXIMIZE THE POTENTIAL OF YOUR BACK 40, THEN REAP THE REWARDS.

By Andrew Johnson

The landscape across a majority of pheasant country has changed. There are still a few places, mainly out west, where a pheasant hunter can walk for hours without running into a fence or other property boundary. 
But the sweeping, contiguous sections of idle acres or grassland found during the Soil Bank Era of the 1950s and 1960s through the height of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) in the 1980s and 1990s have largely given way to fragments of habitat scattered between row crops and ranch land.

At the same time, the continually rising cost of buying or leasing land has outpaced the ability of many hunters to afford it. Gone are the days of locking down full or even half sections to call your own. Smaller tracts in the neighborhood of 40 to 80 acres are now more of a reality, further breaking up an already fragmented landscape.

This presents new challenges for today’s landowners and land managers looking for the right habitat recipe that will attract and sustain huntable pheasant populations. But with a lot of strategic planning and plenty of hard work, it’s still possible to create an ultimate “Back 40” honeyhole.

Here’s a crash course on 4 core habitat elements that will help you get it done. We'll begin with our ULTIMATE BACK 40 starter diagram, then dive into the elements one by one.

1 EARLY SUCCESSIONAL HABITAT

The most important step on any small acreage is converting as much land as possible to native habitat, says Jason Bleich, a Pheasants Forever conservation specialist who hails from east-central Illinois. More specifically, he believes early successional habitat full of wildflowers is a core element on smaller acreages.

Early successional habitat, Bleich explains, is a rather nebulous yet inclusive term that simply refers to a highly diverse blend of native grasses, weeds and forbs that “succeed” one another as a result of some kind of disturbance, be it mowing, fire, herbicide, or tilling and planting.
 
You don’t need a biology degree to recognize what early successional habitat is. Quite simply, all you need is the ability to tell whether your property is home to 20 or 30 different types of plant species, or if only one or two have taken over.

“A lot of times when recreational landowners buy or lease a new property or decide to make some family ground better, they think the existing habitat is good enough, when really it’s just pasture, fescue or straight brome,” he explains. “In those cases, I recommend eradicating the cool-season and invasive species and starting from scratch. Species diversity is critical, especially in smaller areas, and you want to avoid monoculture environments of brome, cattails or even switchgrass. Don’t get me wrong, because switchgrass can be great for pheasants, but a stand of 40 acres on its own won’t do much for pheasants or other wildlife.”

When space is at a premium, it’s important to focus on habitat elements that are multi-dimensional, and research has established that pheasants use early successional habitat all year long, even during harsh stretches of winter, says Tim Lyons, upland game project leader and research scientist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

“How we manage for pheasants has changed over time, because we used to manage for one stage or season without thinking about the next,” Lyons says. “Certain habitats can have negative tradeoffs, though, that only become magnified on smaller areas. What might be good for winter cover, like trees or cattails for example, might have a bigger negative impact on nesting or brood-rearing success.”

Once quality early successional habitat is established on as much of the property as possible, Lyons said implementing a rotation with swaths of habitat that are 1, 2, 3 and 4 years post-disturbance is what he would do if he owned a back 40.
 
“I’d keep as much of it looking like a pollinator plot as I could, because that type of habitat really provides the best bang for your buck,” he says. “You want to aim for diversity, with lots of wildflowers, some native grasses and plenty of bare dirt. That open quality at ground level provides mobility for chicks to follow hens during brood-rearing season, which is really important for survival. Also, if some of that early successional habitat goes undisturbed for 3 or 4 years, where the stems can stand up to snow or even provide cover if they get bent or knocked over, it turns into great winter habitat and you don’t even need specialty plantings.”
 

2 FOOD PLOTS

One specialty planting that should come into play on your back 40 is a food plot, but Bleich says it’s important to understand that a food plot’s purpose isn’t producing 250-bushel corn.

“With our seed program, I talk to guys about food plots and food plot management almost every day, and I remind them we’re trying to grow pheasants, not feed the world,” Bleich laughs. 

He says modern ag has done a phenomenal job of convincing most people that a food plot should have perfectly manicured rows of corn, sorghum or millet that are free of weeds, but he tries to paint a vastly different picture. Bleich says today’s fields aren’t as “dirty” as they once were, so he reminds landowners and land managers to shoot for that 1950s cornfield look.

“It’s no coincidence that we had millions of pheasants back then when things were weedier and messier, so it’s not rocket science,” he says. “We’re just trying to replicate through our food plots and seed mixes what we had 40 or 50 years ago.”

Another misconception many people have about food plots is that they only benefit pheasants by providing a food source over the winter, but Bleich says food plots are another multi-use, multi-season habitat option for pheasants.

“What’s cool is if food plots are done correctly they’re also great nesting, brood-rearing and winter cover,” he says. “In addition, I love to use food plots as a tool to disturb and maintain early successional habitat. For example, if I’m working with 40 acres, I will recommend keeping 4 or 5 acres in a food plot, but I’ll also recommend bouncing that plot around to different parts of the property from year to year. By doing so, you’re going to create a flush of foxtail, common ragweed and other weeds that are phenomenal for pheasants.”
 

3 WETLANDS

“I’m a huge advocate for wetland projects, because any time you can get a wetland on the property, all wildlife will benefit,” says Bleich. “My family farm has 5 small wetland projects, all between 1 to 2 acres. If we only have an hour or so to hunt at the end of a work day, we’ll walk circles around the wetlands, because that’s where you’re going to see roosters.”

Bleich says most properties have the capacity to host at least one wetland project, and although it’s a rather permanent habitat feature that can eat up valuable space, he says the ends justify the means.

“Everything comes down to diversity, so if there’s a low spot in a field where you could brake a tile or put up a small berm to hold back water, you’re adding to the diversity of your property,” he explains. 

Aside from being a source of water, wetlands promote plant species diversity, as changing water levels throughout the year naturally create early successional habitat, Bleich says.

“Wetland side slopes and other areas of moist-soil vegetation — that ‘kinda weedy, kinda muddy’ area around the edges of a wetland — are a great food source for ducks and pheasants come late summer and fall, and they’re also great for insect production in the spring and summer, which is essential for chick survival,” Bleich explains. “Then, if you let the succession happen, you also let the cover develop into cattails, rushes or other thicker cover for winter habitat.
 

4 WOODY COVER

Both Bleich and Lyons say there’s been a seismic shift in the pheasant management world that’s recently taken place, as trees and other woody habitat are no longer believed to be as critical as they once were for overwinter pheasant survival.

A couple years ago Lyons conducted a study called Landscape Ecology and Demography of Ring-necked Pheasants through the University of Illinois, and what he discovered was that throughout the year pheasants overwhelmingly spend the most time in plantings comprised of native grasses and forbs, even during winter.
“Down in Illinois, what we found through telemetry data is that even if we had a bad snow, not many of our birds moved into trees,” he reports. More importantly, his study concluded that the presence of trees didn’t affect survival one way or the other.

Bleich agrees, noting that the further north you go, the presence of trees can become a population factor.  
“If you’re in pheasant country, for the most part native shrubs and trees are not as crucial because pheasants don’t use them as much as we once thought,” Bleich says. “Obviously, the further north you go that changes, as having some solid winter cover is more important, but south of that it’s not as important as everybody thinks it is.”

However, if a property is being managed for both pheasant and quail, Bleich says that adding native shrubs can provide covey headquarters and crucial winter habitat.

“Woody cover is something I promote very sparingly, and it usually really depends on how badly the landowner wants to do it,” Bleich admits. “When I do promote it, it’s usually to supplement a hedgerow or timberline that’s already on the property.”

The key with native shrubs or other woody cover is that it should help create a buffer or a transition area, not a hard edge, Bleich says.

“You don’t want a wall of timber that opens up directly into a cornfield or food plot,” he explains. “A soft line is ideal for both pheasants and quail, and thickets or brush that produce higher-quality cover is much better cover than, say, hardwoods or evergreens.”
 

CONCLUSION

Bear in mind that it’s easy to get overly excited and try to do too much on a small property, Bleich says. So, when it comes to managing an ultimate back 40 for pheasants, he advises to start with early successional habitat as the foundation, and build from there.

“Diverse, early successional habitat full of wildflowers is definitely the most important component,” he says. “Wetlands, strategically placed food plots and native shrub thickets are also crucial components for maximizing a small property’s full potential — that’s the recipe for sustaining a good pheasant population.”

Andrew Johnson raises a family, chases pheasants and writes about the uplands from his home in Tea, South Dakota.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2020 Issue of
Pheasants Forever Journal.