Habitat & Conservation  |  01/10/2023

Prairie Poo Patrol


Little latrines on the prairie tell a story … and can guide you to pheasants

By Rachel Bush

Walking through the uplands behind one of my dogs will forever be a favorite activity. While hunting I always hope to find what I’m looking for. It is hunting after all. But I cannot deny the ancillary benefits and unimagined gems you come across while in the field. 

Sometimes these gems are all you go home with. If you have spent time afield after our favorite upland game bird, the ring-necked pheasant, you have likely observed one of those unexpected treasures, what I’ll refer to as little latrines on the prairie. 

These telltale piles of pheasant scat, or other upland gamebird droppings, indicate the bird you are after spent some time in the spot you find yourself staring down at. As a hunter coming across one of these little latrines, the sight instantly raises my spirits … and the day’s prospect of finding birds.

A prairie poo patrol reveals there are birds are here, or at least they were, which for me is better than not knowing, especially when hunting a new area. 

In biological terms, these latrines are roost scat piles. That is not a very technical term, but one that tells you exactly what you are looking at. These scat piles are indicators that a bird has spent some time in the spot, whether overnight or riding out a storm. 

For pheasants these poo piles are made by single birds, unlike the roost rings we see with covey species, such as quail.  High-quality roosting sites — those that provide both concealment and protection from the elements — may be used multiple times over a season by different birds, creating some accumulation.؅

As a hunter, the next time you come across a roost scat pile, take notice of the surrounding habitat. If the mercury has dropped and winter winds are sweeping the landscape, the biologist in me would bet you are in some stout cover that is offering protection from wind or is thick enough to provide an insulative barrier. A roosting site’s ability to provide thermal cover during harsh weather can mean life or death for our feathered friends.  I’ve observed scat piles in cattail sloughs, shrub thickets, western snowberry patches, food plots, and in tall standing grass. 

To us, a clump of grass may not seem like enough to protect a bird from the elements, and if you are in an area dominated by cool season invasive grasses, like smooth brome or Kentucky bluegrass, it’s not. However, many of the most valuable grass species habitat managers use for nesting cover, such as wheatgrasses, big bluestem or switch grass, are also serve as valuable roosting and loafing cover later in the season. These grasses have stiff stems and grow in clumps just large enough to block winds and create space for a pheasant to tuck in and gain protection from the elements.

If you are fortunate enough to be able to develop habitat on your own property, creating habitat, such as native grass and wildflower plantings, that meet the needs of pheasants through multiple seasons allows you to stretch your habitat value. Restoring wetlands, and their associated vegetation such as cattails, is also great way to create high quality roosting and thermal cover. Large block shrub plantings in the right location that include the right species are another way to increase thermal cover in your habitat plans.

For the hunter, if after finding your own latrine on the prairie you still come up empty handed, no need to fret: You have harvested one of the many intangible benefits of hunting — new knowledge. 

Your prairie poo patrol has revealed that birds are using the area. You just need to time your arrival with their presence. Try earlier in the day before birds leave the roost, or a golden hour hunt when birds have moved back to thicker cover for the evening. Hitting areas where you know birds are roosting on days where the weather is dreary, winds are blowing or other conditions that may keep birds from venturing out to feeding areas, is another strategy.

When not serving as Conservation Program Manager for Pheasants Forever, Rachel Bush patrols the North Dakota prairie for pheasants … and their poo.