What happens after pheasant eggs hatch is as critical as getting them to hatch at all. Here's how hens do it.
By Jim Wooley, Pheasants Forever Senior Field Biologist (Emeritus)
If pheasant population recruitment was like a track meet, courtship is the warm-up for two main races run back to back – nesting, then brood-rearing. Nesting success matters. Pheasants must hatch before they even have a chance of appearing in your gamebag come fall. Then brood-rearing takes over. It’s a spring/summer marathon that defines fall hunting success.
Brood-rearing starts at hatch: The hen provides overhead cover and heat to help dry wet chicks. This close brooding continues for 2 to 3 weeks as chicks gradually develop capacity to thermoregulate. Cold, wet springs can wreak havoc on pheasant production. Even dry, day-old chicks can expire in 1 to 2 hours at 45 degrees without mom’s warmth. Soon after hatch the brood embarks on a weeks-long safari. Hunting for food sustains body temperature and promotes rapid growth. Success depends on the hen finding foraging cover that’s crawling with bugs.
Pheasant chicks begin feeding once cover dries for the day, loaf afterwards in nearby shade, then forage again in the afternoon before roosting. Just one ounce at hatch, a young bird will grow over 50 percent the first week, then double in weight the next. The magic elixir is insects – the only menu item for those first weeks. Chick droppings reveal they pursue larger prey and seek insects rich in fat and protein (leafhoppers, crickets, grasshoppers, weevils, beetles, caterpillars). Diet varies with age but it’s still 50 percent bugs at 5 weeks. At 10 weeks juvenile diets resemble adults, adding more seeds and foliage.
Broods move just enough to find food, and in diverse insect-rich habitats they’re regular little homebodies. They initially range an acre per day, expanding to 10 acres by week 3 and roaming much more widely by week 10 to 12. Small brood ranges are good: Predator encounters are minimized, energy goes for growth versus travel, and survival increases.
Weather and predation claim their share of chicks, but good habitat helps. Average brood size shrinks by half over 12 weeks. Hens, which lose 20 percent of their body weight from pre-nesting time, suffer high summer mortality rates. Brood-rearing and feather molts trim another 10 percent of body weight, explaining why some hens abandon broods early.
Broods seek lateral and overhead concealment, bare soil with lower stem densities for easy movement, and plenty of broadleaves. Research in Kansas, Illinois and Nebraska indicate chick diets improved in managed habitats where legumes (clovers, alfalfa, etc.) were interseeded. In simulations these areas produced 3 times more chicks than unimproved grasslands.
How does land you own, manage or care about stack up for brood-rearing? All habitats decline with time. Keep cover young by applying frequent disturbance. Disk to releases broadleaves sleeping in the seedbank and promote diversity. Disk wetland edges in dry years. Graze, hay or burn or burn a third of an area’s grasslands every year. Reseed where necessary. Perhaps simplest: let last year’s food plots fill with annual weeds.
The broods will thank you and your gamebag will sag.