Pheasants Forever Nebraska

Habitat Essentials

Landowners seeking to maintain or increase pheasant and quail populations should ensure that all of the essential habitat needs (food, cover, water, space) are available and easily-accessible in close proximity. Pheasants live within a home range of about one square mile or 640 acres. Whereas, bobwhite quail occupy a smaller home range of about 20 to 40 acres. Home range and movement patterns are influenced by the type, quality, quantity, and arrangement of habitat components. For example, pheasants may nest in brome-alfalfa CRP fields but the same cover offers little value during a winter blizzard. Over time, brome grass tends to dominate a field and becomes less productive nesting cover.

Cover is critical because pheasants and quail depend on a variety of cover types (nesting, brood-rearing, winter) for population growth and survival. Ideally, a mix of warm-season bunchgrasses (e.g., big bluestem, little bluestem), forbs (broadleaf plants), and legumes (clover, alfalfa) provide nest­ing and brood-rearing cover. To improve habitat for pheasants and quail, it’s important to understand the complex interactions and limiting factors that impact habitat suitability and biological carrying capacity. Have you ever noticed that people talk about spring nesting conditions and brood surveys as they anticipate hunting opportunities? It makes sense when you consider that an estimated 70% of the fall pheasant population are hatch-year birds. While we have no control over the weather, we can impact the quality and quantity of habitat.

Nesting Cover: Residual cover (vegetation left standing from last growing season) and ground litter provide overhead concealment Hens prefer nesting cover that is at least 8 to 12 inches tall.
Brood-rearing Cover: Chick mobility and an insect-rich diet are critical. At 1-4 weeks old daily movements are limited to a small area, about 3.65 acres.
Winter Cover: Dense grass cover, cattail sloughs, and shelterbelts. On average, daily movements between food and cover are 1/4 mile or less. Photo Credit: Tom Koerner/USFWS

Nesting cover consists of open habitats with dense, herbaceous vegetation (grasses, legumes, and forbs) providing residual cover (last year’s growth) and ground litter. Pheasants nest in a variety of cover types including grasslands, forage crops, small grains, crop stubble, and odd areas. Vegetation must be at least 8 to 12 inches tall to provide concealment from predators and remain undisturbed during the nesting season. An Iowa study suggests that 40 to 160-acre grassland blocks interspersed within a pheasant’s home range are optimal for nest-site selection and nest success.

Nesting occurs from mid-April to mid-July. Hens lay a clutch of 7-15 eggs in a shallow scrape or hollow of grassy, ground litter and will not start incubating until the last egg is laid. After 23 days, the eggs hatch.

“Territory appears to influence nest placement, but nesting cover does not influence territory location” according Peter Robertson, author of Pheasants. Hens flock towards dominant, territory-holding roosters, which provide protection and reduce energy expenditures. As a result, hens tend to establish nests within a half-mile from winter cover (Dumke and Pils 1979).

Throughout the pheasant range, nesting cover is the single most important limiting factor for populations. Thankfully, it remains one of the few factors we can directly impact through habitat management and improvements. To learn more, visit the Habitat Management page.

Do not disturb
Ideal nesting cover is free from both human (haying, mowing, dog training) and weather-related (cold and rain) disturbances. Alfalfa, oats, pastures, and roadsides can be important nesting cover; yet, they can also be population sinks if nests are abandoned or destroyed due to disturbances. Landowners should be aware of suitable nesting cover on their land if they wish to maintain or increase pheasant populations. Leave some residual cover for nesting by practicing rotational grazing and prescribed fire.

Roadsides provide important grassland habitat, with up to five acres of potential nesting cover along each mile of rural Midwest roads. A South Dakota study found nearly half of the fall pheasant population hatched from idle farmland and roadside habitat areas, which comprised only 14% of the total nesting cover. Roadsides can be left unmowed or mowed only after mid-July.

Since first cuttings of alfalfa and grass hay coincide with pheasant nesting, consider timing and techniques of haying operations to reduce wildlife mortality risks. Flushing bars, haying patterns, and delayed cutting are a few examples of wildlife-friendly conservation measures to meet stewardship goals. If eggs are destroyed before hatching most hens will attempt to re-nest.

A measure of success
Hens select nest sites with vegetative and structural diversity (i.e., greater forb cover and vertical density). To assess the nesting cover potential, throw a football into grass cover. In good nesting cover, you will find that the football is concealed by dense, overhead cover and surrounded by several different grasses and forbs. Also, look for the presence of residual vegetation and ground litter. Try this field exercise in mid-April. Finally, remember that nesting cover is dynamic. If the cover looks great this year, chances are the quality will decline within a few years as grass stands become too dense or rank. Plan management activities every 3 to 5 years to renovate grass cover.

Habitat Tips:

  • To protect nesting birds, no CRP management practices are allowed from May 1 to July 15, except when necessary to control noxious weeds.
  • Delay roadside haying and mowing activities until after July 15. Better yet, do not disturb roadsides so that wildflowers and cover are available to wildlife. If necessary, spot spray or mow undesirable vegetation.
  • Harvest hay in a manner that allows wildlife to flush and escape. Get assistance through the Conservation Stewardship Program.
  • Wider is better. A predator is more likely to find a nest in a narrow fenceline than in a 120-ft field border. A study in southern Minnesota showed nesting success increased by 1% for every one foot increase in filter strip with up to 60 feet.
  • Think about how far a pheasant has to travel to access different cover types and resources. Is there suitable nesting cover within a half-mile of winter cover and winter food within a quarter-mile of winter cover?
Vegetation must be at least 8 to 12 inches tall to provide concealment from predators.
To assess if you have adequate nesting cover, toss a football into the field around mid-April. Now, imagine the football is a hen on the nest. While this field has tall, dense grass cover mixed with forbs, note that there is no residual grass cover or ground litter. Here, prescribed fire, chemical burndowns, and interseeding were used to convert a brome field to native grass cover.
Territory appears to influence nest placement, but nesting cover does not influence territory location. Hens flock towards dominant, territory-holding roosters, which provide protection and reduce energy expenditures. As a result, hens tend to establish nests within a half-mile from winter cover. Photo: Tom Koerner/USFWS

Brood-rearing cover allows chicks to safely forage for insects at ground-level. The ABC’s of brood-rearing cover are accessibility, bugs, and concealment. Pheasants use grass fields, small grains, alfalfa, hay, and ditches as brood-rearing cover. In corn-soybean dominated landscapes, broods tend to stay within idle grass and hay fields. Wheat and oat fields are desirable because they provide easy travel corridors and insect-prey for chicks. Quality brood-rearing cover differs from nesting cover in that it is more open at ground-level and has a higher composition of broad-leaf vegetation.

A is for accessibility

Pheasant chicks, weighing less than an ounce, are strong enough to walk and feed within several hours after hatching. The average daily movement of a pheasant chick is 225 feet or 75 yards. Translation, nesting cover and brood-rearing cover should be located within close proximity to one another. Or, as some wildlife biologists say, “put the kitchen next to the bedroom.” You can provide breakfast in bed by establishing or interseeding a diverse mix of forbs and legumes within nesting cover. However, ground litter restricts chick mobility, which raises another important point about accessibility. Chicks prefer bare ground conditions (50-70% bare ground cover), as seen in new CRP plantings, wheat fields, or food plots. Management practices, such as light disking and prescribed fire, create more open space at ground level within established grasslands. To increase habitat edge and interspersion, consider managing one-third to one-half of a CRP field in rotation over several years. This is especially true for quail habitat management.

B is for bugs

Small, soft-bodied insects and larvae make up 90% of a pheasant chick’s diet during the first week of life. Insects continue to be an important, albeit smaller, component of their diet through 14 weeks. Weevils, ants, and beetles are frequently consumed by pheasant broods in Nebraska. While most CRP fields have adequate insect-prey availability, research shows that diverse and improved CRP fields offer a good combination of insect-availability and mobility for pheasant and quail broods (Doxon and Carroll 2010). In contrast, single-species, sodbound grasses have relatively lower insect-availability and chick-mobility. Disking and interseeding legumes has proven to be an effective management technique for improving mobility and insect abundance. Additionally, increased nest success and brood survival are attributed to CRP management. For more information on brood-rearing cover management, contact a Farm Bill Wildlife Biologist in your area.

C is for concealment

Vegetation that provides overhead canopy cover and lateral cover is critical during the brood-rearing period when chick mortality is high. If a pheasant nest nest escapes a hay cutting, the chicks will be exposed to predators once they hatch. Observations in Nebraska show that brood use in alfalfa varied with the quality and availability of regrowth in a 3-cut system. Tall wheat stubble has excellent lateral cover and its value as brood cover increases through the summer as weed growth develops. Cover crops may provide similar vegetation structure and benefits to broods. Because one to ten-day-old pheasant chicks have not developed the ability to thermoregulate, canopy cover can help insulate broods from sun exposure and heat stress.

A measure of success

Visit habitat in June and July to evaluate its quality for brood-rearing. Imagine a golf ball-sized pheasant chick foraging on the ground. If you want to make an easy birdie, accessibility is key. Ideally, brood-rearing cover is a low, rolling chip shot away from the nest. A 300-yard power drive is going to be next to impossible for a flightless chick. You can putt a golf ball through lush, green brood cover with relative ease. Bunch-grasses and stems may change the balls direction or stop motion. Don’t worry. If the ball is playable, your brood cover is in good condition. If there is adequate overhead canopy cover, it should be relatively difficult to see the ball rolling on the ground. Lastly, train your eyes to read the brood-rearing cover for insect abundance and diversity.

Habitat Tips:

  • Leave at least 15 inches of wheat stubble for wildlife. To improve wildlife value, leave whole fields or portions of the field unsprayed and untilled, delay spraying, or plant cover crops.
  • To improve brood-rearing habitat, use of management strategies that disturb the soil, increase vegetative diversity, set back plant succession.
  • Early-successional plants and bare ground in disked firebreaks provide key habitat requirements for broods.
  • Use a sweep net to compare insect abundance and diversity between fields.
A combination of wildflowers, legumes, annual weeds and scattered bunch-grasses are desirable for brood-rearing cover. Overhead cover protects chicks as they forage on the ground for insects.
Most pheasant mortality occurs during the first 2 weeks after hatching. Easy access to quality brood-rearing habitat and an insect-rich diet increases chick survival.
This CRP field was disked and interseeded with a mix of legumes and wildflowers. A minimum of 30-50% bare ground is needed to adequately set-back plant succession and acheive management benefits for wildlife.
This CRP field was disked and interseeded with a mix of legumes and wildflowers. A minimum of 30-50% bare ground is needed to adequately set-back plant succession and acheive management benefits for wildlife.

In response to the cold of winter, pheasants shift to heavy cover and bobwhites gather around in roost formations to stay warm at night. Cattail sloughs, dense grass cover, and weed patches provide the first line of defense against windchill and snow. While switchgrass and Indiangrass can rebound from heavy snowfall, big bluestem is susceptible to severe lodging, which greatly reduces winter cover. Smooth brome and wheatgrass CRP fields provide little to no winter cover value with deep snow accumulations. In emergency situations, well-placed shelterbelts and food plots may improve winter survival. Shelterbelt design and location impact snow distribution and wildlife use in adjacent habitat.

Energy conservation

Thermoregulation accounts for 60-70% of the energy requirements of bobwhites in winter. Therefore, high-energy foods are essential because they provide fuel to stay warm. At times, snow accumulation and severe weather may lower or restrict normal feeding activities. While birds can survive on fat reserves for a few days, it’s not an ideal situation.

Pheasant hunters know that it’s not uncommon to find roost sites or flush birds in edge cover bordering a corn field. Why? Most pheasants do not range very far from winter cover because movement and exposure to the elements expends energy. On average, daily movement between food and cover is within a quarter mile. Ideally, high-energy food sources are located adjacent to high-quality winter cover to increase energy inputs while reducing energy losses. This creates a positive energy balance while also reducing exposure to predators.

Location, location, location

“The recipe for wintering game,” according to Aldo Leopold, “ is corn and cover. As in other recipes, success depends on where, when, and how the makings are put together.” Waste grains and wild foods are widely available throughout the Cornhusker state. However, snow cover can make foraging a challenge for wildlife. Food plots or unharvested crops, on the other hand, keep food above the snow line. Where adequate winter cover is present, consider planting a few small food plots or leaving rows of unharvested grain. Large blocks of five or more acres can provide a combination of structural cover and food where winter cover is a limiting factor. However, adequate winter cover is usually more limiting than food. Consider establishing or improving grass cover before dedicating time and energy into annual food plot management. A South Dakota study revealed that the presence of peripheral wetland or grass cover was more important in determining winter food plot use by pheasants than food plot size.

Corn or milo?

From a nutritional standpoint, there is no difference between corn and milo. Both grains help build fat reserves but they do not provide a complete diet. Pheasants and quail consume a wide variety of winter foods such as sunflower, ragweed, smartweed, partridge pea, foxtail, acorns, fruits and twig buds. Want more food for thought? Read Ten More Pheasant Food Plot Questions Answered by Jim Wooley, Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever field director and senior wildlife biologist (emeritus).

Pheasants Forever’s Signature Series food and cover seed mixes are designed to carry game birds through tough winters. Food plot orders placed through a local chapter are available for pick-up at the Nebraska State Habitat Meeting.

A measure of success

Winter cover is relatively easy to evaluate, especially with the aid of a bird dog and shotgun. Look on the ground for telltale signs of bird activity such as droppings, roost sites, and tracks in the snow. See if cover is standing upright or flattened under the weight of snow. Make note of unique features or microhabitats where birds flush. What’s growing there? Is there protection from the wind and drifting snow? Consider how far birds have to travel between food and cover. Not sure what they’re eating? Examine the contents of a bird’s crop to get a general idea diet preferences.

Habitat Tips:

  • Conservation tillage increases food availability and reduces downwind drifting of snow into winter cover areas.
  • A few rows of unharvested corn can provide a winter food source for pheasants that also functions as a living snow fence.
  • Allow food plots to persist through March to provide a reliable food supply during possible early-spring blizzards.
  • It pays to leave milo stubble 14 inches or taller undisturbed until
    April 1 to benefit wildlife and soil moisture conservation.
  • Plant food plots when soil temperatures have reached an average of 60-65⁰ F. Visit CropWatch for soil temperature updates.
Dense cover and shelterbelts help pheasants survive extreme winter conditions. Photo Credit: Mark Lehigh
Most birds do not move very far between food and winter cover. Photo Credit: Roger Hill/NRCS
Farther movements burn precious calories, increase exposure to predators, and impact body condition of nesting hens. Photo Credit: Alex Galt/USFWS
Pheasants don't have to travel far from the nearby cattail slough or shelterbelt to forage on standing corn in this winter habitat complex.

Covey headquarters provide escape and loafing cover for bobwhites, which spend a most of their time in and around woody cover. Ideally, covey headquarters are composed of low-growing, thicket-forming shrubs (e.g., American plum, sandcherry, skunkbush sumac) with sparse ground cover that allows quail to have their heads on a swivel to detect predators and escape in multiple directions. Covey headquarters should be at least 1,500 square feet in size. To establish a covey headquarters, plant native, suckering shrubs 3 feet apart in a 30 x 50-foot area. Alternatively, edge-feathering may be used to soften woodland edges and create woody cover that functions much like a live shrub thicket.

Covey rise

Amid the excitement of a covey rise, smart hunters pay close attention to where bobwhites scatter so that they can track down singles and doubles. From take off to landing, the average flight distance of a quail is 51 to 66 yards. The relatively short flight distance and small home range size of quail suggests that woody cover should be interspersed throughout the landscape. Having covey headquarters, brood cover, nesting cover, and food within 150 feet of each other is the optimal habitat arrangement according to the Bobwhite Quail Habitat Appraisal Tool developed by University of Missouri Extension.

Shrub cover for pheasants

Have you ever noticed pheasants tend flush in groups of either hens or roosters while hunting? By early-spring, these groups gradually disperse as roosters establish territories to crow and display. Research suggests that roosters prefer territories with shrubby cover. While shrub cover is not critical, landscapes mixed with shrubs and suitable nesting cover can support higher densities of rooster territories.

Quail are often associated with edge habitat and are never far from woody cover. Covey headquarters, brood cover, nesting cover, and food should be located within 150 feet of each other.

Habitat Tips:

  • Use edge feathering to soften habitat transition zones. Early successional habitats provide food and escape cover for quail.
  • Don’t wait until spring to order trees and shrubs from your NRD. Popular species, like American Plum, typically sell out each year.
  • Fall is an excellent time to use basal bark and cut stump treatments on weedy trees and shrubs.
  • Use prescribed fire and other timber stand improvement methods to increase habitat quality for turkey, deer, and other wildlife.
  • Listen for the “koi-lee” call of bobwhites as they initiate covey formation in fall.

Wildlife management efforts often focus on field-level habitat improvements because wildlife must have basic living needs such as food, cover, and water available within a close proximity. However, we could also look at population dynamics within a section, township, or geographic region of Nebraska because landscape patterns and processes interact at multiple scales.

A bird’s-eye view of habitat

From 10,000 feet in the air Nebraska looks like a patchwork quilt of contrasting land uses. The size, composition, and arrangement of patches influence the distribution and abundance of wildlife across the landscape. Quite simply, pheasants are either present or absent from an area. They select habitat because it provides the conditions and resources for survival and reproduction. Research shows that the proportion of permanent grassland cover (e.g. CRP) is the best predictor of pheasant abundance. In high-quality habitat a population is able to persist over time. In contrast, habitat that cannot sustain a population over time indicates lower quality habitat because factors such as habitat degradation and fragmentation can limit reproduction, survival, and dispersal. Additionally, complex interactions of wildlife and their environment also have a significant impact on habitat suitability.

Since the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) was introduced in 1985 the landscape has changed dramatically by planting cropland to permanent grass cover and visa versa. At one time CRP enrollment peaked at 37 million acres. As of July 2018, 22.6 million acres of CRP are enrolled nationwide, down from the 10-year average of 29.7 million acres. While it is difficult to measure pheasant population response to large-scale habitat changes, there is no doubt that changes in grassland cover directly impact pheasants.

Habitat quality also depends largely on surrounding land uses and land cover composition. Simonsen (2015) found lower nest depredation rates in CRP when surrounded by winter wheat, pasture, and CRP compared to CRP surrounded by fallow fields. In another study, pheasant broods ranged over larger areas and moved greater distances in landscapes dominated by corn and soybeans because they tend to support lower insect densities compared to diverse crop systems with small grains, alfalfa, and hay. Nebraska research shows pheasant populations respond positively to the proportion of row crop agriculture and small grains within the landscape, but negatively to the proportion of trees in the landscape.

A mosaic of grasslands and croplands across the landscape provide attractive environmental conditions for pheasants, quail, and other upland wildlife.
Southwest Nebraska consistently boasts excellent pheasant hunting opportunities within wildlife management areas and private lands enrolled in the Open Field and Water program.
Photo Credit: Les Howard

Think Habitat

 

“Imagine you’re 6 inches tall, weigh 6 ounces and would rather walk than fly. Your view of the world would change. A knee-high shrub would become a small tree, a dense stand of bluestem would become an impassible jungle, and a 1-mile jog would telescope into a half marathon. You’re beginning to see through the eyes of a bobwhite. These are delicate, immobile birds that require a variety of habitats. They’re largely concerned with living space from ground level to a height of about 3 feet on areas no larger than 20 city blocks. Therefore, managers must create crazy-quilt patterns of cover on small areas; ‘patches’ in the quilt must fulfill seasonal and annual cover needs.”