Habitat & Conservation  |  04/18/2023

Play Small Ball or Swing for the Fences?


All pheasant nesting cover is critical, but some sizes and configurations work better than others

By Scott Taylor, National Wild Pheasant Conservation Plan Coordinator

If given a choice, would we rather add pheasant nesting habitat to the landscape as a few big chunks, or dispersed as a bunch of little ones? Putting aside for the moment that we are rarely offered a choice outside of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) policy arena, a universally correct answer to the question has been somewhat hard to come by.

The landscapes to which we want to add habitat usually already have a mix of smaller and larger habitat “patches,” so two factors must be considered regarding our preference — what percentage of hens will choose to nest in the new habitat, and what percentage of their nests will hatch?

The goal is to maximize the population’s production of successful nests over time (and, in turn, the number of chicks that join the population each fall), so an underwhelming value in either category won’t move the needle much.

Researchers have approached the patch size question in several ways: monitoring habitat selection and nest success of radio-tagged hens; observing the fate of “artificial nests,” i.e., brown chicken or pheasant eggs placed in locations of interest; and comparing the number of birds in areas with smaller versus larger blocks of habitat while accounting for variation in the total amount of habitat available.

The most comprehensive radiotelemetry study comes from Iowa in the 1990s, where biologists found that hens nesting near the centers of large blocks of grassland had the highest chances of success. But the researchers also observed that a few hens chose to nest in small, isolated patches, and those hens were relatively successful compared to those nesting in less isolated small- and medium-sized patches. The conclusion was that while bigger patches were generally better, the performance of smaller patches depended on the proximity of other habitats, or “landscape context.”  The “isolated-small-patch-strategy” hens, though, were relatively rare, so as a group they only contributed a small percentage of the total chick crop.

These conclusions were largely confirmed in a recent study of artificial nests in South Dakota: Patch size mattered, but so did landscape context. Another artificial nest study in Nebraska failed to find a patch size effect, and two groups of researchers studying pheasant abundance found the amount of habitat was the primary driver of spring numbers, with the configuration of the habitat (including patch size) mattering little if at all.

All this doesn’t necessarily mean that configuration had no effect on nest success in isolation. But it does remind us that bird abundance — our ultimate goal — hinges on more than nest fate or any other single aspect of survival and production.  All annual needs must be met for a population to thrive.

All told, most biologists would choose fewer, larger blocks of nesting cover over more numerous smaller ones, although the comparative benefits will wax and wane in different landscape contexts. More certain is that in cropland dominated landscapes, we shouldn’t be overly picky. “More” is what matters most. Patches of all sizes help on that front.

This story also appears as the Pheasant Country column in the Summer 2023 Issue of Pheasants Forever Journal. If you like this content and would like to see more of it, join Pheasants Forever today to receive the Pheasants Forever Journal in your mailbox 5x a year.