Brood habitat can have a very significant effect on pheasant populations. In fact, recent research is showing chick survival – highly dependent on brood rearing habitat – is one of the most influential factors relating to pheasant population increases and decreases.
The Need for Brood Habitat
When chicks emerge from the eggs, there is a high demand for protein-rich food, specifically in the form of insects. Broods only move far enough to satisfy their needs – the shorter the distance, the better. And, home ranges can be pretty small if cover quality is high. Movements of just 1-4 acres per day in the first weeks of life characterize the limited travels of broods in good cover.
Broods, Biomass and Bug Power
Insects are the fuel chicks need to grow. Chicks feed on bugs almost exclusively their first 4-6 weeks, feeding constantly throughout each day. Insects continue to be an important, albeit smaller, component of the diet through 14 weeks. Soft-bodied insects, including leafhoppers and larval stages of moths and grasshoppers, make up a large part of the diet. The management challenge with brood habitat is to provide the very best cover possible for those insects, so that more of them are produced for brood food. Chicks consume from 1,000 to 2,700 milligrams of bugs per day, so they need cover that produces a high insect biomass, such as oats and sweet clover as opposed to corn and beans. Pheasant broods forced to range over larger areas have reduced survival rates. Single species stands of native (eg. Switch grass) or cool-season grasses (eg. Brome grass) are also poor producers of insects. Adding forbs (broad leafed annuals or perennials) to these grasses increases diversity and insects.
Quality Brood Cover
Diverse nesting cover can also make fair brood cover, but there are specific differences between the two.
Pheasant broods on the hunt for food have certain considerations. Broods need good lateral and overhead concealment from predation, since they are being hunted themselves by most everything with teeth and talons. In fact, from a hatch of a dozen chicks, only six will survive until October. Broods also require openness at ground level to feed freely throughout the stand (and to escape should trouble show up). Fields choked with the litter of dead vegetation from years of neglect will not see much use by broods. And, as talked about previously, brood cover must be comprised of vegetation attractive to their insect quarry.
Good nesting cover can be great brood habitat, as well, but generally not without some thought. Early-successional areas, characterized by open stands with a high diversity of grasses and succulent broadleaved plants, fit the requirements for both nesting and brood rearing. Well-designed habitat for both nesting and broods will pair diverse forbs (broadleaves) with several species of either warm or cool-season grasses (or both) that will provide more cover variety. Broods are often found at the junction of these native and cool season habitats. These complexes of plants also provide habitat for nesting, night roosting, daytime loafing and escape cover.
The value of cover for broods and nesting declines significantly as the stand ages. If you have your own plantings, diversify them and create a plan for regular disturbance (disking, grazing, haying, burning, etc.) that rejuvenates the cover. Rotationally managing a third of the field annually provides much better wildlife habitat overall. For more on managing brood cover, contact a Farm Bill Wildlife Biologist in area.