Throughout the pheasant range, nesting cover is the single most important limiting factor for wildlife populations. Thankfully, it remains one of the few factors we can directly impact by establishing the right vegetation and managing it correctly. Hen pheasants start nesting beginning in April within residual vegetation from the previous year and conclude by mid-July. It is during this time pheasants need secure and undisturbed cover.
Ideal nesting cover is:
- Secure – cover providing overhead and horizontal concealment from predators
- Undisturbed – cover free from both human (mowing, dog training) and weather related (flooding) disturbances
Pheasants live out their lives within a home range of about one square mile, requiring all habitat components (nesting cover, brood habitat, winter cover and food) to be in close proximity. Ideally, 30-60 acres, or about 5-10% of this range should be nesting cover. Larger blocks of cover are preferable to narrow linear strips. However, linear cover, like waterways, roadsides, and field borders, is important to wildlife on a landscape level.
Points to consider
- Linear cover is easier for predators to search during nesting; however, it benefits pheasants significantly after nesting by providing travel links between fragmented agricultural habitats. Hint: Southern Minnesota studies have shown that for linear cover up to 60 feet wide, nesting success for pheasants goes up 1% for every 1-foot increase in strip width. Wider is better
- Research tests have shown 20 acre blocks to be the target size for maximizing nest densities
- Roadsides are mowed and burned far too frequently. Delayed mowing, and spot mowing or spraying accomplishes weed control in roadsides at less cost and does not disturb nesting hens
- Roadsides provide important grassland habitat, with up to five acres of potential nesting cover along each mile of rural Midwest roads. In some areas, 40% of pheasants in the fall population are produced in roadsides
Establishing Nesting Cover
Providing proper nest cover should be the cornerstone of all pheasant management plans. Establishing nesting cover requires land, funds, and manpower. Consult with a Pheasants Forever chapter if you have questions about grass seed mixes or other nest cover concerns.
Cool or Warm Season Grass
Cool-season (non-native) grasses like timothy, orchard grass and tall or intermediate wheatgrass begin growth in the cool, spring months. They reach maturity by early summer and then become dormant until cooler fall temperatures stimulate growth again. Cool-season grasses are generally easier to establish, cost less, but require more intensive management to retain their productivity. Single species stands of cool-season grasses are of little or no value to nesting pheasants.
To realize their potential as nesting cover, cool season grasses need to be mixed with legumes such as alfalfa, alsike, and red or sweet clover. Even with maintenance, most cool-season grass stands must eventually be replanted because the legumes are out-competed by the grass and eventually die.
Warm-season (native) grasses such as Indian grass, switch grass, big and little bluestem begin growth much later in the spring, reaching full maturity in late summer or early fall. 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. Warm-season grasses are generally more difficult and costly to establish, but are easier to manage. Typical management includes controlled burning on a 3-5 year rotation.
Diversify your plantings
Single grass stands may be easier to plant; however, mixed stands of cool or warm season grasses complemented with forbs will provide greater diversity and consequently be more attractive to wildlife. Interseeding legumes or planting separate plots of cool-season and warm-season grasses can also improve nesting and brood-rearing cover.
- Cool-season grass/legume mixes typically contain tall or intermediate wheatgrass, orchard grass, timothy, redtop and alfalfa or one of several clovers
- Warm-season mixes usually contain switch grass, Indian grass, big blue-stem, little blue-stem and 4-10 forbs such as butterfly milkweed, prairie asters or clovers, coneflowers, sunflowers, indigo, and stiff goldenrod
Managing Nesting Cover
The wildlife value of grasses generally declines as vegetation ages, and the vigor of the cover is diminished. It is for this reason that managing nesting cover is usually more important than what species you choose to plant.
Controlled burning (in early spring) is a critical tool in the management of grasses. Woody plants and other unwanted vegetation can be eliminated by proper use of fire. Burning also releases the nutrients bound in the plant litter, stimulating vigorous new growth following the burn. Burning can be very dangerous if not done properly as grasses produce extremely hot fires that spread rapidly.
- Before you burn, make sure to contact your local biologist, fire department and NRCS office to receive the necessary burn plans and permits
- Burning should be done every 3-5 years
Mowing of any type of cover (for haying, weed or brush control) should be delayed until after the nesting season has concluded (mid-July). In newly established areas, mowing the first year is a good idea if weed competition is severe. After cover is established, mowing segments of a field on a 3-4 year rotation will keep the vegetation rejuvenated. Leave 10-12 inches of cover after the last cutting, particularly with warm-season grasses. This is a sufficient height to provide some residual cover for nesting and to protect plant vigor.
- Whenever possible, use spot mowing rather than blanket cutting for weed control
- Remember, there is absolutely no reason to mow (disturb) nest cover during the nesting season
Light mechanical discing in the early spring can also restore plant vigor by opening up a stand of grass and reducing the effects of crowded root systems. This practice is more attractive for wildlife because it effectively increases diversity by creating a seed bed for annual herbaceous plants.
Where to find help
Various federal, state and private conservation programs may help defray some of the cost of establishing nest cover. Contact your county USDA Farm Service Agency office, state wildlife agency or local Pheasants Forever chapter to start. These same agencies oftentimes rent specialized planting and maintenance equipment. Habitat design assistance is available from state wildlife agencies, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, or your PF regional biologist.
A measure of success
There are many good types of nesting cover. A simple field exercise to test the adequacy of your nest cover would be to throw a football 20 feet into your habitat. If it disappears and there are several species of grasses and forbs around the ball, you likely have adequate cover. Conduct this test in mid-April and then monitor the field to ensure there is no disturbance for the next 3 months. Finally, remember that nesting cover is dynamic. If the cover looks great this year, chances are it won’t look that good in 2 years. Plan ahead to manage grass cover successfully. In all likelihood, it is the very best thing you can do for pheasants in your area.
Still confused about nesting cover?
Contact a Farm Bill Wildlife Biologist near you.