Pheasant Habitat Essentials Guide

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Introduction

What is the Pheasant Habitat Essentials Guide?

The features of good pheasant habitat haven’t changed since our favorite gamebirds arrived on these shores from Asia in the 1880s and found, in many places, a landscape almost tailored to them.

But what we know about good pheasant habitat has changed. So is the way that we as humans use the land. Good pheasant habitat doesn’t just happen anymore, like it did in the first century or so of this now-American bird’s life in North America.

Now, we as an upland conservation community must actively work and manage for the birds. Fortunately, the way we manage for pheasant habitat also improves soil and water quality, benefits a host of other wildlife … and creates places for people to hunt and otherwise recreate.

Pheasants Forever’s first Habitat Essentials Guide was published almost three decades ago. Though many of the principles are the same (for pheasants are still pheasants), we know more now than we did then. That’s what the all-new PF Pheasant Habitat Essentials Guide is all about.

Whether you are managing land for pheasants and other wildlife, or just want to learn more about pheasants and pheasant habitat (and maybe become a better hunter come every fall too), this guide will help on your journey.

We are, after all and with you, The Habitat Organization. Welcome to this keepsake digital edition of The Pheasant Habitat Essentials Guide.

— Tom Carpenter, Pheasants Forever Journal Editor

Table of Contents


Table of Contents

Coming Soon...

Pheasant Stocking Fallacies

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The Science on Predators

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An Upland Eden

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What Pheasants Need

Coming Soon...

An Expert Panel



Online Extras

Check out the recent On the Wing podcast episode featuring Pheasants Forever Editor Tom “Carp” Carpenter and PF & QF Director of Communications Jared Wiklund to preview the Pheasant Habitat Essentials Guide:

Chapter-1

Habitat Basics:
Creating the Mosaic

Habitat Basics: Creating the Mosaic

Mosaic (n): A pattern — in this case, on the landscape — of smaller parts and pieces

It is simple: The right habitat equals stronger and healthier pheasant populations. But good upland wildlife habitat is multi-faceted. Most pheasants live out their lives within a mile of where they were hatched, requiring all habitat components to be in close proximity. Those habitat components are nesting and brood-rearing cover, winter cover, and food sources. Ideally, all three occur near or next to each other on the landscape, creating a mosaic.

Three components form the core of prime pheasant habitat:


Nesting Brood-Rearing

Nesting and Brood-Rearing Cover Basics

Nesting and Brood-Rearing Cover: Herbaceous cover providing concealment from predators, that remains free from all disturbances from April to mid-July or after.

Nesting cover and brood-rearing cover are the single most important limiting factors for pheasant populations and should be the cornerstone of all pheasant management plans. Think of words like grasslands and prairie as the habitat type most needed by pheasants.

There are three keys for good nesting and brood-rearing cover:

» It should contain multiple species of grasses and forbs (wildflowers). Think diversity.

» There should be no disturbance (i.e., mowing, burning, dog training, etc.) during the prime nesting season from April 15 to July 15.

» Nesting cover is dynamic, so plan ahead to manage grass cover successfully in successive years. Planning ahead to manage for diversity (disturbance such as timely mowing or burning) is likely the best thing you can do for pheasants in your area.

Implementing buffers on the landscape can also increase nesting and brood success. These “travel links” along cropland edges, as well as streams, waterways and riparian corridors, protect water quality while providing nesting areas between fragmented agricultural habitats. Wider is always better: Nesting success for pheasants increases measurably for every 1-foot increase in strip width.


Winter Cover

Winter Cover Basics

Winter Cover: Cattail, woody or other stiff-stemmed cover which should remain snow-free and erect during and after a severe blizzard.

Cattails offer prime winter cover for pheasants. Build wetlands, and cattails will come. But there is another form of winter cover too.

Where wetlands do not exist but winter blasts can impact pheasant populations, shelterbelts can help the birds. Shelterbelts have long been a feature of the pheasant country landscape for sheltering livestock and farmsteads from winter’s harsh grip. A well-designed shelterbelt is also prime for providing loafing, feeding, roosting and escape cover for ring-necked pheasants and other wildlife.

The basic steps for a successful shelterbelt project are:

» Selecting and ordering planting stock

» Preparing the site properly

» Using suitable planting techniques

» Providing proper care after planting

Shelterbelts should be designed to contain 10 or more rows of trees and shrubs primarily on the north and west sides of the farmstead or other area being protected. For maximum protection for both livestock and wildlife, shelterbelts should be at least 150 feet wide.

Do not place shelterbelts (which can house predators) next to your very best nesting and brood-rearing cover.

Shrubs are planted in the outermost rows to catch drifting snow, while deciduous trees in the center “lift” the chilling winds above the farmstead. Evergreens are on the inside rows effectively reduce the remaining wind and drifting snow.

Field windbreaks are often much smaller in scale and contain 2-4 rows of smaller shrubs planted outside 2 rows of evergreens.


Food Plots

Food and Cover Plot Basics

Food and Cover Plot: A planting with winter pheasant food, with the vegetation also serving as cover for the birds.

The focus often placed on food plots often overshadows pheasants’ real habitat need on the landscape: Nesting and brood-cover, which trumps all else.

When good grain operations thrive on a landscape that also has adequate pheasant habitat, ringnecks eat well and do great.

That said, food plots can play a role in pheasant management, especially in the northern half of the pheasant range, because of the relationship between food, and winter cover, movement and mortality. Good food and cover plots can enhance any other winter cover.

The principle objective of food and cover plots is to help carry female birds through winter in good condition. This is accomplished by establishing a safe place to forage, providing a dependable source of food, and limiting unnecessary movements.

The two critical design factors for food plots are location and size:

» Locate food plots next to heavy winter cover or other shelter such as shelterbelts or cattail sloughs.

» If there is no winter cover available, food plots must be large enough (4 to 15 acres) to provide significant cover in addition to being a source of food.

Food plots alone aren’t the be-all for helping pheasants. They are merely an assist (but sometimes an important one) in the habitat mosaic playbook.

Bret Amundson

The #Farming4Habitat campaign was initiated by seven of the nation’s leading conservation organizations to highlight the robust investments that America’s landowners make in support of the conservation of our public trust fish and wildlife resources. Learn more at Farming4Habitat.org.
 

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Chapter-2

Nesting and

Brood-Rearing Cover

Nesting and Brood-Rearing Cover

Without nesting and brood-rearing cover on the landscape, there are no pheasants. Period. 

Ring-necked pheasants are birds of open landscapes, where grasses and herbaceous plants are the dominant cover. Across most of the pheasant range, secure, undisturbed grassland nesting habitat is the most important limiting factor for pheasant populations. Brood-rearing is another element of the “making new pheasants” equation.

That can be a good thing, since nesting and brood-rearing cover is one element we can influence in a relatively short period of time by planting the right vegetation and managing it correctly.

Nesting and brood-rearing cover is herbaceous cover (examples: grasses, and forbs or wildflowers) providing overhead and horizontal concealment from predators, that remains free from both human-related (mowing, dog training) and weather-related (flooding) disturbances from April to mid-July.

Hen pheasants generally begin nesting by early April. The earliest nests are located in erect, residual vegetation from the prior growing season. Later, the new growth in hayfields or pastures becomes important for nesting hens and for newly hatched broods. Through mid-summer, pheasants need secure and undisturbed cover.

Hens that lose nests are persistent re-nesters, although clutch size and success rates diminish rapidly as summer advances. Nesting chores end for most hens by mid-July. In addition to pheasant nesting, grasslands also provide the insects that are important for providing the protein-rich food that young pheasants need to grow fast.

Here are the keys to creating prime places for pheasants to hatch and grow young:

Can you spot the hen pheasant?


Nesting Cover Needs and Opportunities

Nesting Cover Needs and Opportunities

Pheasants need a minimum of 30 to 60 acres of safe, undisturbed nesting cover. That would be about 5 to 10 percent of a 640-acre section. More is better. Of course, any nesting cover is better than none.

Consider the size and shape of nesting cover as well as the types of vegetation. Generally, larger blocks of cover are preferable to narrow strips, since large blocks are more difficult for predators to search. However, some linear habitats are very important for production and brood-rearing on a landscape level.

Nesting cover opportunities are where you find them, but there are some specific areas to concentrate on:

» The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), and other federal and state conservation programs, provide financial incentives to convert unproductive cropland to grassland cover. This can provide a better return for the landowner on unproductive acres, improve soil and water quality, and create wildlife habitat.

» Roadsides can provide important grassland habitat for nesting. Oftentimes all you have to do is delay any mowing. There are up to 5 acres of potential nesting cover along one mile of rural road. In some areas, 40 percent of pheasants in the fall population are produced in roadsides or other idle areas.

» Filter strips along cropland edges, stream or riparian corridors, field borders, and grass waterways, protect water quality while providing nesting areas and travel corridors between habitats for the birds. Many of these areas also qualify for enrollment in CRP or other conservation programs. (Hint: wider is always better. Southern Minnesota studies have shown that for linear cover up to 60 feet wide, nesting success for pheasants goes up 1 percent for every 1-foot increase in strip width.)

» Setting back farming operations 50 to 100 feet from ditches and ponds creates nesting areas that also contribute to water quality.

» Most farms have unproductive areas that can’t be used profitably for agriculture. In the practice called precision agriculture, some of these areas can be converted to native grasses (nesting and brood-rearing cover) that reduce annual input costs and provide a return via federal and/or state conservation programs, providing a better financial outcome for the landowner on those acres.

» Eroded sites, wetland edges, abandoned farmsteads, and occasionally flooded cropland, offer great potential if planted in a productive nesting cover and protected from farm machinery.

» Hayfields and pastures can also be managed to provide nesting cover to birds through the nesting season. Pastures utilized outside of nesting season at a stocking rate designed to leave residual cover for springtime can provide suitable nesting cover.


Choosing a Nesting Cover Mix

Choosing a Nesting Cover Mix

Establishing nesting cover is a compromise of factors that include site, cost and your management objectives. Since wildlife will use the cover for more than just the nesting season, think about other habitat needs — like brood-rearing and wintering.

Single Species or Mixes?

What is better: Just one grass or a mixture of grasses and/or broad-leaved plants?

Single species mixes may fit in some instances but fail for pheasants in others. A great example of this is smooth brome. Although birds may nest in brome, it often chokes out other broadleaf plants, creating an “insect desert” for freshly hatched chicks.

Fields of warm or cool-season grasses and forbs in a habitat mix will provide more cover variety that will produce more pheasants. Broods are often found at the borders of these fields, as that is where bare ground and broadleaf plants are located.

Diversify

The lesson is to diversify your plantings. Quickly achieving a solid stand of grass is not a good goal when creating nesting and brood-rearing cover. Although these heavy stands of grass may be where you find the birds during the hunting season, often the birds are not produced there.

Plantings comprised of native prairie grasses and forb mixtures provide relative ease of movement for broods. Native grass/forb stands also typically offer excellent residual vegetation for nesting the following year.

The best plantings normally contain mixes of 5 to 10 native grasses suited to the site, with a complement of 15 to 20 forbs such as milkweeds, prairie asters, bergamot, prairie clovers, prairie coneflowers and sunflowers, indigo, lupine and goldenrods.

Cool or Warm Season Grass?

Nesting cover must conceal hens from overhead, and from the side when viewed from a dozen feet away.

That requires dense, erect vegetation at least 8 to 12 inches high. Both cool and warm-season grasses can fill this requirement. Both warm and cool-season grasses can be utilized for nesting by birds. The residual cover (last year’s growth) typically provides the most likely place for a pheasant to nest.

Cool-Season Grasses. Cool-season grasses begin growth in the cool spring months, hence the name. They can provide early green-up for nesting depending on how early or late spring is. If there is adequate growth, nesting can occur. Native cool-season grasses like prairie Junegrass are always good to include in your seed mixes.

Warm-Season Grasses. Warm-season native grasses begin growth much later in the spring. They reach full maturity in late summer or early fall. Hence the warm-season name. These grasses produce high-quality cover when cool-season grasses lie dormant.

Warm-season (native) grasses such as Indiangrass, switchgrass, and big and little bluestem, reach full maturity in late summer or early fall. But last year’s warm-season grasses produce high-quality cover when cool-season grasses lie dormant. If left undisturbed, these grasses may provide good winter habitat and residual nesting cover for the following spring.

Native grasses and forbs are self-sustaining if managed properly. The growth form and root structure of these plants actually help minimize many noxious weed problems.

Controlled burning, on a 3- or 4-year rotation, is a primary management tool for warm-season grasses.

The quality of native grass and forb seeding as cover for pheasants and other upland wildlife is unmatched.

Native grasses can be planted prior to June, as late-fall dormant seedings (November) or as frost seedings in late winter (February).

Testing for Nesting

There are many good types of nesting cover. Here is a simple field exercise to test the adequacy of your nest cover:

Throw a football 20 feet away. If it disappears and there are several species of grasses and forbs in the field, you likely have adequate cover. Conduct this test in mid-April. Ensure there is no disturbance for the next 3 months.

Pheasants are grassland birds, but not all grasslands are created equal. As you conduct these football tests you will begin to notice a trend of native warm-season grasses consistently being the Super Bowl champions of structure compared to non-native species.

Disturbance is Required

Nesting cover is dynamic. It must be regularly renewed. If the cover looks great this year, chances are it won’t look that good in 2 years. Disturbance is good. Plan ahead to manage grass cover successfully. That means burning, mowing or both. It is the best thing you can do for pheasants in your area. See the Managing Nesting Cover section for details.

Dylan Jacobs


Planting Native Grasses and Forbs

Planting Native Grasses and Forbs

Keep these 4 basic planting rules in mind and you will have success, no matter whether you plant in spring or fall.

» Good seed bed preparation is extremely important.

» Native grass and forbs need good seed-to-soil contact for germination.

» The most common mistake is planting the seed too deep.

» Monitor aggressive weed pressure the first year.

Fall Seedings

Fall seedings of native grass and forb mixes can be effective for establishing diverse stands of nesting cover.

You cannot seed until the soil temperature has dropped low enough so that there is no chance of germination in the fall. Soil temperatures must be below 54 degrees, and you should be reasonably certain it will stay below that temperature for the remainder of dormant seeding season.

If you are seeding forbs or native grasses using a no-till drill in the fall or spring, know that planting the seed too deep is one of the most common mistakes.

Placing the seed more than ¼ to 1/8 inch beneath the ground surface can have negative effects. This is especially important in fall, as the ground’s freezing and thawing process can work the seed deeper into the soil over the winter months.

When drilling into existing crop stubble (soybean stubble is ideal), tillage or disturbance prior to seeding is not needed. Simply drill directly into the existing crop stubble. This provides a nice firm seed bed, helping ensure that the seed doesn’t get planted too deep.

If you are no-till drilling into existing cool-season grass vegetation, the existing vegetation needs to be killed prior to seeding. For this, a 3-step process is recommended:

» Reduce the existing grass competition evenly and at the ground level. Do this early enough to allow 6 to 8 inches of new regrowth of the cool-season grass before fall frost. After frost, apply a full killing rate of glyphosate-based herbicide when the temperature will reach 50 degrees.

» The following spring, apply another full rate of glyphosate herbicide to the area to help eliminate any grass that was not killed during the fall application. Applying the second herbicide later in the spring can be beneficial to help with early emerging annual grass and weeds. If the area is enrolled into a contract, make sure and check for spring spraying deadlines.

» When doing a broadcast seeding, light tillage or a form of disturbance is generally recommended. This is especially important if existing vegetation is present. The seed needs good contact with the soil to germinate. If it doesn’t, the opportunity for gemination the following year will be limited. If tillage has been completed, then packing the soil prior to the broadcast seeding is highly recommended. Packing the soil can be done using a cultipacker or roller with heavy weight helping to assure a firm seedbed. Pack the area at least once again if not multiple times after the seeding to provide better seed-to-soil contact.

Spring Seedings

Spring planting can be completed any time before the first of June. Some years, seeding through the middle of June can be successful. However, depending on the summer’s heat and moisture, new seedlings may not have enough root growth to support themselves for the upcoming winter. (If in a USDA program, check seeding date deadline.)

First-year mowing can be used to help control weed pressure. This can also decrease the time for establishment. Constant monitoring will be needed if mowing is going to be used as a management option.

A common mistake is mowing too late in the growing season, creating an excessive thatch layer on top of the new seedlings. Monitoring early can help reduce this negative impact. Mowing should be done when the average vegetation height is around 12 inches. This can vary depending on the weed pressure.

Mowing short is not recommended. Raising the mower to a height of 6 to 8 inches helps reduce the amount of mowed material sitting on top of the new plants, while still providing structure.

Seeding Rates

As mentioned previously, good nesting cover cannot consist of grasses alone. Too much grass, regardless of the species, is still too much grass. The rates at which warm-season grasses, forbs and legumes are seeded varies greatly across the country and is locally dependent on factors such as soil type and precipitation. Contact your local PF Farm Bill biologist with questions.

Generally speaking, rates of 3 to 5 pounds of Pure Live Seed (PLS) per acre are appropriate for a large swath of the pheasant range. However, in certain areas, such as the western portion of the pheasant range, a higher seed rate may be necessary given the climate. Forbs and legumes are typically planted at a rate of 1 to 4 ounces per acre.

Use the following guide to determine the appropriate quantities of individual grasses in a mix. For best results, contact your county NRCS office to find the recommended seeding rates for your specific soils.

As a good rule of thumb, try to make mixes that have an approximate ratio of 50:50 grasses to forbs/legumes.

SELECTING SEED

There are a great many quality seed dealers to choose from. Consider Pheasants Forever mixes first. We offer a variety of mixes specifically designed for different situations, needs and geographies. Visit the Pheasants Forever Habitat Store here.

That being said, there are some simple guidelines to use when selecting native seed.

» Do not simply go out and buy the cheapest seed you can find. Poor seed produces poor results and delays success.

» Select a variety or mix that will grow in your region. An example: Bison big bluestem does well in northern Minnesota and Canada but diminishes in vigor the further south you travel. It is poorly adapted for Iowa and Nebraska. Check with the experts at The PF Habitat Store (866-914-PFQF or akuehl@pheasantsforever.org), or your local NRCS office, if you have questions about appropriate varieties for your region.

» Fresh is good. Native seed doesn’t necessarily get better with age. Make sure your seed has been tested within 6 months of purchase. Stay away from seed with a germination of less than 50 percent. If unable to plant right away, seed should be kept in a location where it stays cool, dry and secure from insects and rodents.

Determine PLS and PLS/sqft

Planting rates are usually given in pounds of Pure Live Seed (PLS) per acre. Because bulk seed can vary greatly in quality, make sure you are buying seed per pound PLS. This is the reason you do not want to go out and purchase the cheapest seed you can find. An alternative method, and a method that often helps with visualization, is to find the PLS seeds/sqft (square foot).

As an example, picture a one-square-foot area on the ground, and then picture a number of seeds within it. For most nesting mixes, a seeding rate of 20-35 PLS/sqft is recommended. This means your one-square-foot box on the ground should contain 20-35 seeds. This often helps people understand why the amount of seed they receive is smaller than they expected. While the above rates should be true for large portions of the country, checking with your local Farm Bill Biologist and or NRCS office may be necessary.

Due to the nature of most seed, and especially natives, there is a certain percentage of non-seed per bulk pound of seed … and not all seed is viable. Through testing the seed, the purity (percent) and germination (percent) are determined. These ratings should be found on the label of any seed you are planning to purchase. Pure Live Seed or PLS percent is determined by multiplying the percent purity by the percent germination.

For example: If a seed test results in a purity of 70% (.70) and a germination of 92% (.92), % PLS would be calculated like this: % Purity (.70) x % Germination (.92) = % PLS or 64.4%.

Once you know the percent pure live seed, simply multiply it by the bulk weight of your seed to determine the pounds of pure live seed you have. For instance, if your bulk switchgrass weighed 55 pounds and the PLS was 64.4% you would have 35.42 pounds of viable switchgrass seed to plant. 55 pounds x .644 = 35.42 pounds.

PLS / sqft can be determined by dividing the # of seeds per pound / 43,560 sq ft per acre. Typically, seed dealers or resource professionals will have determined this factor. The take-home here is the handy visualization method for both seed on the ground and the amount of seed purchased.

Logan Hinners


Managing Nesting Cover

Managing Nesting Cover

The value of grassland vegetation for supporting nesting pheasants and offering cover for other upland wildlife depends on more than just getting the native grasses and wildflowers seeded.

Proper management is necessary to rejuvenate older plantings and keep them attractive to nesting wildlife. Actively managing a third of a field annually on a rotating basis can rejuvenate seedings and provide better wildlife habitat. Several management options are available.

Controlled Burning

Controlled burning is an important tool for managing warm-season grasses and forbs, as well as tame grasses.

Unwanted woody vegetation can be eliminated by proper use of fire. Burning also releases the nutrients bound in the plant litter, and that stimulates vigorous new growth following the burn.

Burning can, however, be very dangerous if not done properly. Native prairie produces extremely hot fires that spread rapidly. Permits are required by most fire departments, and controlled burns on CRP lands require NRCS burn plans.

In short, if you have never done a burn before, get the proper training and do your first couple burns with an expert at hand!

Burn when the new growth of competitive cool-season grasses reaches 2 to 6 inches in height — normally in late March into early April. Earlier burning leads to weed growth, which is fine for wildlife but sometimes a problem for landowners.

Later burns often fail because of too much green growth.

Burning should be done every 3 to 5 years, and more frequently if tree invasion is a problem.

Timing of the burn can be critical for wildlife production, and if possible, a scheme of rotational burning is best.

We’ll say it again: If you plan to burn, get training, get help, and consult with wildlife agencies and fire departments.

Mowing

Mowing of any established cover (for haying, as well as weed and brush control) should be delayed until after the nesting season has concluded, in mid-to-late July.

Even then, broods using these areas for feeding need to be considered. If it was a late-hatch year, delay your mowing to save birds! And consider whether those birds will have places to go and cover to use after you mow. Maybe don’t mow it all.

After cover is established, haying segments of the field on a 3-year rotation will keep the vegetation rejuvenated and leave birds with habitat to use. Shredding/ mowing can leave excess thatch on the ground and limit chick movement. Shredding can be a valuable tool to decrease woody vegetation in nesting cover areas.

Leave 8 to 12 inches of cover after the last cutting, and more if possible with native grass. This is sufficient height to provide some roosting cover as well as residual cover for nesting, and to protect plant vigor.

If weed control is necessary, use spot mowing rather than blanket applications.

Disking

Disking is an underrated management technique used to create early successional habitat. Aggressively disking sodbound grasses promotes bare ground and provides opportunity for forbs like sunflowers to grow. These early successional plants and bare ground are critical to pheasant chicks.

Multiple disking passes may be needed to produce adequate bare ground.

One important note: In areas with a history of noxious weeds, disking can cause bare ground creating opportunities for those noxious weeds to emerge.

Interseeding

Interseeding legumes, or planting separate plots of cool-season and warm-season grasses, can also diversify nesting and brood-rearing cover.


Brood Rearing Habitat

Brood Rearing Habitat

Hatching new pheasants is important. But quality brood-rearing habitat is essential to ensure pheasant chicks are able to survive, grow and ultimately thrive. To accomplish this, brood-rearing habitat must check multiple boxes. It must:

» Provide concealment from predators.

» Permit easy movement of small chicks.

» Allow chicks the ability to regulate their body temperature.

» Offer ample foraging opportunities (i.e. soft-bodied insects).

If we adopt the perspective of a pheasant chick for a moment, we begin to see how different vegetation types can bring all these factors together.

Newly hatched chicks weigh less than an ounce, so pushing their way through dense vegetation isn’t an option. But they must also avoid spending too much time out in the open, as they would be a quick treat for predators.

Which kinds of plants won’t slow down chicks, but also hide them from threats? Bunchgrasses and broadleaves.

Bunchgrasses grow in clumps, leaving the surrounding soil bare. Broadleaves (wildflowers), which generally lose the battle for resources to sod-forming grasses, persist in the open soil allowed by bunchgrasses and form tree-like canopies above these bare spots. This structure offers both lateral concealment (grasses) and overhead concealment (forbs) from preying eyes, while also allowing for open paths on the soil surface for the tiny chicks to move freely.

Unable to regulate their own body temperature for more than ten days after hatching, chicks also rely on this variation in structure to help keep their internal temperature within a safe range. Mornings in the spring are chilly and the vegetation dewy. A chick that finds itself in sod-bound grass will likely die of hypothermia if it is unable to push itself out of the damp vegetation and dry itself off.

Luckily, life gets easier for the young birds as they grow. And they do grow quickly. To fuel this rapid growth, chicks need the quality protein only found in soft-bodied insects.

During their first several weeks of life, pheasant chicks feed almost exclusively on the larval and instar stages of many pollinator insect species. Pollinating insects (as well as many non-pollinator species) require broadleaf plants on the landscape. So, generally speaking, good pollinator habitat is good brood rearing habitat.

When planning these seedings, it is beneficial to include north of 30 forb species with just a few warm season grasses at a low rate, aiming for a ratio of 1/3 grasses to 2/3 forbs. A high number of broadleaves guarantees that there are always plants blooming throughout the growing season, as most species only flower during a specific window and for a limited time. It turns out planting milkweed benefits more than just monarch butterflies!

FINDING HELP

Various federal, state and private conservation programs may help defray some of the cost of establishing nest cover. Contact your local Pheasants Forever Farm Bill biologist to start. Other resources include the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) at your local USDA Farm Service Agency office, state wildlife agency, and local Pheasants Forever chapter.


Flower Power All-Stars

Flower Power All-Stars

As diversity on the landscape is good for pheasants, so is diversity within nesting and brood-rearing cover itself. Forbs, more commonly known as wildflowers, are key in that respect. Prairie wildflowers feature stiff stems that stand up to wind, heavy rain and other weather extremes, while offering broad leaves under which young pheasants can hide from predators and move about while foraging for the abundant insects that such habitat produces. Come full summer, the blooms are just beautiful to look at too, while supporting pollinator life. Here are a few all-star species:

Monarda
Monarda fistulosa
Purple Coneflower
Echinacea purpurea
Yellow Coneflower
Ratibida pinnata
Butterfly Milkweed
Asclepias tuberosa
Goldenrod
Solidago canadensis
Rudbeckia
Rudbeckia spp.


The #Farming4Habitat campaign was initiated by seven of the nation’s leading conservation organizations to highlight the robust investments that America’s landowners make in support of the conservation of our public trust fish and wildlife resources. Learn more at Farming4Habitat.org.
 

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Chapter-3

Winter Habitat

Done Properly, Winter Habitat Brings Birds Through Rough Weather

If pheasants—especially, good numbers of hens—can't make it through winter, there will be fewer successful nests in spring.

Winter can be deadly for many species of farmland wildlife, pheasants among them, unless there is dense sheltering cover and a reliable food source nearby.

The thick cattails of wetlands, or stiff-stemmed native grasses such as switchgrass, are the most effective winter cover. If available, pheasants prefer these herbaceous covers because of the density of vegetation at ground level.

The woody habitat of coniferous farmstead shelterbelts can be another benefit to pheasants in the most severe winters, where wetlands or stiff-stemmed winter cover does not exist. Shelterbelts must be done properly though, so as not to degrade the quality of adjacent grassland habitats that provide the greatest lift to the local pheasant populations via the nesting and brood-rearing cover they provide.

Two main components comprise prime winter habitat:


Wetland Benefits

Wetland Benefits

Wetlands have long been promoted by upland biologists for the excellent quality winter cover they provide for pheasants. In many areas it is not uncommon to have 70 to 90 percent of the wintering pheasant population associated with wetland cover. In these areas, pheasant management plans focus on conserving the remaining wetlands.

Traditional cattail sloughs are an excellent place to begin managing for winter pheasants, as are lesser known and recognized scrub-shrub wetlands.

A wetland’s dense network of stems provides effective insulation from cold temperatures and windchill, and provides shelter from blowing and drifting snow. Wetland habitats provide the best over-winter survival rates for pheasants. Part of that factor is the significant energy savings birds enjoy during a cold winter. This translates into birds that are in better breeding condition when spring arrives, especially if there is a reliable food source nearby.

In severe winters, some folks note that “the cattails are completely full.” While this is sometimes the case for small wetlands, on-the-ground investigating of large cattail wetlands will show that the downwind side, away from the prevailing wind direction, is often “canopied” with snow and offers abundant open area underneath where pheasants can thrive.

Restoring and Creating Wetlands

Millions of wetland acres have been lost to draining and crops over the last century. Crops are important, but some zones in fields areas should not be cropped, and are even unprofitable. Fortunately, many of these areas can be restored to their natural state.

This process is relatively simple. Arranging the actual restoration, however, is time consuming and often tedious.

Identifying drained wetlands, contacting landowners, receiving the necessary permits and arranging for contractors to do the work are just a few of the steps necessary to restore a wetland. Are wetland restorations worth the hassle? Without a doubt, yes!

Arguably few habitat projects are more worthwhile than preserving or restoring a wetland, and in some instances restoring a wetland is as simple as fencing out the livestock. In all cases it is best to start by contacting your state wildlife agency or nearest U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office.

Wetland maintenance is also a consideration. In some regions, emergent scrub and shrub wetlands will readily succeed to forested wetlands without occasional disturbance.

Your state wildlife agency or local Pheasants Forever Farm Bill biologist can recommend best management practices for long-term maintenance of wetland winter cover.

Wetland Wonders

The bottom lines for wetlands are simple:

» Wetlands serve as critical cover for pheasants, especially in winter.

» Working with other organizations that also value wetlands is essential to preserve what we have on the landscape and retore areas of this kind of prime winter cover. Organizations such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state fish and wildlife agencies, and Ducks Unlimited, are key partners with Pheasants Forever in this regard.

» Wetlands provide significant benefits to soil and water quality: more reason to conserve and protect them, and put more of them back on the landscape in places they should be.

Lynn Betts


Shelterbelt Considerations

ShelterBelt Considerations

We begin this section with an important preamble: Pheasants don’t need trees.

» In a process called succession, trees can reduce the quality of, or outright take over, grassland habitat (nesting and brood-rearing cover) that goes unmanaged. An abundance of research shows that populations of pheasants and other grassland nesting birds are more impacted by quantity and quality of grassland habitat than by that of winter cover. Trees provide habitat for nest predators such as skunks, racoons, weasels and red fox, not to mention avian predators.

» Plantings of native shrubs and short trees can mitigate some or all of the concerns about tree plantings near grassland nesting habitat, and provide winter cover and food for wildlife. If providing woody winter cover near grassland nesting areas is your goal, consider planting native shrubs and short trees such as American plum, common chokecherry, nannyberry and dogwood species.

» Avoid species that will spread easily and can take over grasslands such as eastern red cedar, cottonwood, green ash, Siberian elm, buckthorn and Russian olive. Black walnut and maple species are of little value.

» In heavily forested areas where succession to woodlands poses a significant threat to grasslands, winter-cover establishment efforts should be focused on planting blocks of switchgrass and restoring emergent and scrub-shrub wetlands.

All that said, some areas of the country have few wetlands and the local pheasants need winter cover. That’s where shelterbelts come in. When properly designed and placed, shelterbelts can benefit farmsteads (snow control), livestock operations (protecting animals from bitter winds), homes (block winter winds) and soil conservation (slow winds to catch blowing soil).

FARMSTEAD SHELTERBELT DESIGN

A farmstead shelterbelt designed with wildlife in mind should be located on the north and west sides of a farmstead or other area to be protected, and should contain no less than 10 rows of trees and shrubs.

Four important design factors — snow catch, lift trees, number of evergreen rows and overall width of the belt from west to east and north to south — will determine the effectiveness of the shelterbelt.

Snow Catch

A snow catch is an area designed to stop drifting before it buries the inner rows of short trees. The catch consists of two closely planted (3- to 6-foot spacing) outer shrub rows that lie 50 feet west and north of the main shelterbelt. The open ground between the snow catch and the shelterbelt can be farmed or planted as a garden, but the best use for wildlife is to establish the area in a corn or sorghum food plot. Planted separately or in combinations, corn and sorghum retain grain on stalks, stand well in winter weather and provide high-energy food to pheasants and other wildlife.

Wind Lift

In the inner portion of shelterbelts, coniferous trees reduce wind speed and “lift” chilling winds above the farmstead, or food plot or habitat behind, for approximately 20 times their height.

Width Matters

Shelterbelt width should be at least 150 feet for maximum protection. The innermost rows should be at least 50 feet from the nearest building, if any, and should extend beyond the farmstead area to keep snowdrifts away. Protective feedlot shelterbelts should be at least 200 feet long to prevent livestock overcrowding. The belt should be fenced to protect the planting.

Which Trees and Shrubs?

Start by choosing six or more tree and shrub species for your shelterbelt. Your local conservation district and Pheasants Forever Farm Bill Biologist are great resources to help with proper species selection.

A variety of plants will attract more wildlife and ensure shelterbelt survival in a wider range of environmental conditions.

It is important to match your shelterbelt trees and shrubs to soil type, climate and other site-specific considerations. Consult a wildlife or forestry professional to confirm the appropriateness of your choices.

Local conservation agencies and commercial nurseries can provide stock in the sizes needed for shelterbelts, and may provide planting equipment. Plant according to your shelterbelt plan, spacing 16 feet between rows to allow room for cultivation and tree growth, and to maximize longevity of the shelterbelt.

LAND PREPARATION AND PLANTING FOR SHELTERBELTS

Proper seedbed preparation is a critical factor in establishing a successful shelterbelt.

Summer fallowing or maintaining the site in a cultivated crop (like soybeans) the year before planting will help produce a loose, weed-free seedbed.

Existing grass pastures or hayfields are poor areas to plant because of plant competition. If you must plant in these areas, plow and disk the site several times during the year prior to planting. In either case, apply a pre-emergent herbicide approved for the tree species you are planting.

Prime time for tree planting is between when frost leaves the ground and May 15. By ordering stock the previous fall, the trees should arrive during this critical time.

Before planting, stake tree rows for proper location and spacing. If you use mechanical tree planters, set the trencher at the proper depth and be sure to keep the stock moist until it is in the ground.

When hand planting container grown conifers or other trees, make sure the hole is wide and deep enough to hold the entire root system without crowding.

SHELTERBELT MAINTENANCE

All of your planting work will be wasted unless you are committed to controlling weeds in the new shelterbelt for at least five years. In the Midwest and eastern U.S., this means a 4-foot weed-free zone around the trees. For dry land sites in the West, keep the entire area between trees and rows weed-free.

For the purpose of establishing a shelterbelt, the most important “weed” to control is grass. More specifically, sod-forming gases like bluegrass, brome or fescue must be eliminated.

Effective weed control cuts by 50 percent the time it takes seedlings to reach mature height. Left unchecked, however, broadleaf weeds and grasses will kill seedlings by competing for limited moisture, nutrients, light and space.

Weeds must be controlled for 5 years. For dry land sites in the West and Great Plains this will mean keeping the entire area between trees and rows weed-free. In the Midwest and East this means a four-foot weed-free zone around the plants. There are several ways to control weeds:

» Mulching is very effective for controlling weeds and reducing moisture loss, but it can be expensive and labor intensive. Commercially available fiber matting (also known as tree fabric) can be used as an effective mulch. It allows moisture to penetrate and will last for 5 years.

» Herbicides control weeds effectively when applied in proper amounts at the right time. Both pre-emergent and post-emergent herbicides can be used.

» Watering is critical during the early years of the planting. Provide a good soaking once or twice a week for young trees. Water deeply, as light watering encourages root growth too close to the surface, making the plant susceptible to drought.

» Mowing is not an effective tool for controlling weeds, but it does help reduce cover for rodents that girdle or cut off trees.

The #Farming4Habitat campaign was initiated by seven of the nation’s leading conservation organizations to highlight the robust investments that America’s landowners make in support of the conservation of our public trust fish and wildlife resources. Learn more at Farming4Habitat.org.
 

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Chapter-4

Food and Cover Plots

Weaving winter food and cover together makes life easier on pheasants and grows their chances of surviving the rigors of the harshest season

This section sponsored by:

Winter food is mostly in abundant supply and is generally not considered a limiting factor in the traditional pheasant range. Indeed, starvation of wild pheasants is practically unheard of. Why, then, do most biologists consider food plots an essential part of good pheasant management?

The answer is simple: Winter cover is much more effective with a high-energy food source nearby. Food plots are critical for pheasant management because of the relationship between food, winter cover, movement and mortality.

Planting food plots is planning for the worst-case scenario.


Food and Cover Plot Benefits

Think of a winter food and cover plot as both foraging habitat (concealing feeding birds from predators) and roosting area (where birds seek shelter from winter storms). Even in a mild winter, the closer the two covers are positioned, the more pheasants will benefit.

In fall, grain stubble and weed patches, combined with the cryptic coloration of pheasants, are often adequate to conceal the birds while they are feeding. But those grain stubble fields and weed patches that concealed feeding birds in fall now trap blowing snow and effectively bury the foraging cover.

Pheasants may still be able to feed on buried grain by scratching through the snow if it is not too deep, but they will be forced to do so in the open. That often happens on the most windswept parts of a cropfield, far from cover and exposed to both the extreme weather and to predators.

Pheasants hesitate to feed beyond a half mile from cover, even if abundant food exists beyond that range.

Pheasants are forced to concentrate in available roosting cover, venturing only as far as needed to feed. Birds in these islands of habitat quickly reduce available and nearby food resources. Pheasants are forced to forage further from cover each day, exposed to harsh winter weather, and danger of predators, in the open.

The importance of planning food plots before establishing them cannot be overemphasized. In fact, careful planning may be the difference between projects that are buried by the first winter blizzard and ones that will help the birds make it through and beyond the storm.

Kolpin/Dirtworks


Objective: Helping Hens

Winter is especially tricky for hen pheasants. Here’s why.

The challenge is not merely staying alive. Hens must actively gain weight through mid-winter to replenish what was lost during the previous nesting season. Hens that undergo a great deal of stress during the winter months suffer their highest mortality rate the following spring during nesting; there is a strong correlation between spring body weight and successful chick production.

Well-placed food plots establish safe foraging patterns, restrict unnecessary movements, and provide dependable food to carry female birds through a harsh winter in good condition. Even in a mild winter, the closer secure winter cover and food are positioned, the more pheasants will benefit.

Bret Amundson


What to Plant: Selecting Food Plot Varieities

Plan your food plots carefully. It isn’t worthwhile creating a project that is buried by the first winter storm.

Corn and grain sorghum are among the most reliable food sources (see table). Planted separately or in combinations, they retain grain on stalks, stand well in winter weather, and are high-energy foods. Large blocks of corn, and combinations of forage sorghum and grain sorghum, also provide excellent cover.

Wheat, soybeans, millets, rye and buckwheat are good food sources too, but are often buried by snow, forcing birds into the open to utilize them.

Excellent food plot mixes of the species mentioned are available from the Pheasants Forever Habitat Store (pfhabitatstore.com or 866-914-7373) and can be broadcast for easy establishment. Select maturities appropriate for your area.


Where to Plant: Location and Size of Food Plots

Food plots can be established almost anywhere. Whenever possible, large food plots should be located directly adjacent to woody and herbaceous winter cover on the windward side (generally the northwest). If this is not possible, effective food plots can be established nearby if they are linked via corridors of escape cover to traditional winter cover.

This approach can also be used to make wetlands or small patches of wood cover more effective wintering areas. Place food plots on the windward side of winter cover to catch snow before it enters that winter cover. Link any nearby satellite food plots to winter cover with travel corridors of heavy vegetation. The key to a successful food source is its location.

It is not uncommon for snow to fill the outer 25-50 rows of standing corn or sorghum in a single storm. That is why large (3- to 10-acre) food plots are most desirable for countering winter storms. It also underscores the importance of square or block type plantings as opposed to linear food plots.

Where winter cover is scarce, large 10-acre-plus blocks of corn may be planted to serve as both food and shelter for the birds. Bear in mind that these areas will be used by many species of wildlife and that some species, such as deer and turkeys, consume a great deal of grain daily and can potentially exhaust food resources well before winter has ended.

Smaller plots may work fine — if there is substantial winter cover nearby, if there is a limited acreage to devote to food, if competition for the food is minimal, or if there is a greater need for other permanent habitat (nesting cover, for instance).

Take an objective look at your area’s particular habitat needs and what cover exists on adjacent properties, and get an idea of the worst-case winter. Then common sense, and some advice from a wildlife professional, can help you to determine the correct food plot size.


Planting and Managing a Food Plot

Whether by standard tractor and corn planter or grain drill, or via broadcast seeder mounted on an ATV, UTV or pickup truck, there is a way to get a food plot in the ground where it will do the best for wildlife.

If you are without planting equipment, it may be available to rent from local conversation offices and agencies. Some PF chapters provide planting services at nominal rates, as part of their fundraising efforts; this is a great way to get good work done at a good price from experienced folks. There are often local custom operators willing to plant these areas, too.

What is critical is that the plot be adequately limed and fertilized. Weed control is essential to avoid excessive competition. The presence of some weeds actually benefits pheasants by providing higher protein contents than either corn or sorghum. However, if weeds become a serious problem, grain production may be seriously reduced, stalk vigor diminished, and cover value reduced as well.

Logan Hinners

The #Farming4Habitat campaign was initiated by seven of the nation’s leading conservation organizations to highlight the robust investments that America’s landowners make in support of the conservation of our public trust fish and wildlife resources. Learn more at Farming4Habitat.org.
 

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This multi-part article originally appeared in the 2024 Spring Issue of Pheasants Forever Journal. If you like this content and would like to see more of it, consider supporting Pheasants Forever as an annual member: among many other benefits, you'll receive the Pheasants Forever Journal 5x/year in your mailbox.