Pheasant Country: Brushing up for Pheasants

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Shrub rows benefit gamebirds and other wildlife year-round

By Jim Wooley, Senior Field Biologist (Emeritus)

We as hunters and habitat managers sometime chalk up brush as winter cover or hunting habitat. But shrub rows benefit gamebirds and other wildlife year-round. Brush offers travel lanes, food, predator protection, summer shade, and cover for winter loafing and emergency roosting. Linear shrub structure encourages overall avian species richness and provides songbird nesting habitat.  

An Iowa study aimed at predicting farmland bird diversity in the Midwest demonstrates those values. Row-crops bordered by narrow grassland habitats (fencerows, roadsides) offered nesting for just 18 bird species. Introducing pasture, alfalfa and grass waterways increased nesting species to 26. Inserting a wetland doubled that number to 52 species.

But simply adding a farmstead shelterbelt and brushy fencerow to the mix boosted nesting species to 93. 

If you lack shrubby habitat, and want more wildlife, the path is clear. 

But where to plant and what? Brush belongs in the obvious places (fencerows, field borders), near terrain divisions (draws, hard timber edges), and in discrete plantings (thickets and shelterbelts). Use shrubs to form dense multi-row hedges that protect against predation and harsh weather. 

The native shrubs listed are all fast-to-medium growers, sun-loving, and easily established in row plantings. They range from 10 to 15 feet high and wide, produce food, tolerate variable soils, create songbird nesting habitat, and may even host butterflies.  

Gray and Red Osier Dogwoods sucker from roots, creating dense thickets that produce abundant fall fruit.
Wild Plum forms low fencerow thickets and is favored winter loafing cover for pheasants and quail.
Ninebark is compact and dense, tolerates drought, and retains fruits into early winter.
Hazelnut provides browse, shelter, and edible nuts readily consumed by gamebirds and deer. 
Highbush Cranberry and Arrowwood deliver excellent cover and abundant, persistent fruits.
Silver Buffaloberry further west, affords beefy cover and berry crops that hang on all winter.  

The severe, pheasant-killing winters that happen every five to 10 years are usually serious events. In pheasant country, an 8- to 12-row shelterbelt or ample thicket comprised of dense conifers, low deciduous trees and shrub rows will save wildlife.  

Since the enemy of woody plantings is competing vegetation, prep planting sites through summer and fall to ensure your shrubs are successful next spring. Start slow, with a smaller project you can handle and complete, like a dense plum thicket. Eventually, it may be your local birds’ ticket to reaching the warmth of spring.
 

This is my last column. I’m not hanging up my pencil forever, but this seems like a good time to slip away for a while. A new granddaughter has joined the thundering herd. Another wants more fishing time with Grumpa. Paused pursuits await their renaissance, and new endeavors beckon. Our column will benefit from some diversity. Thanks for reading all these years. Writing for you has been a privilege I’ve enjoyed immensely, and I hope you have enjoyed my messages as much. Good habitat, good hunting. - Jim Wooley

This story originally appeared in the 2021 Summer Issue of the Pheasants Forever Journal. If you enjoyed it and would like to be the first to read more great upland content like this, become a Pheasants Forever member today!